Levi pondered whether she might drink the liquor from a dirty glass or straight from the bottle. He pictured nothing but dust and cobwebs 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 rational to believe the house stood vacant. The building existed in such a state of disrepair that if she had family, they would 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.
Levi drove down the rural roads of Mathews, unspoiled by the hindrances of stop lights, 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 little 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 no traffic lights and who cared little about a twenty-minute drive to the closest shopping center. The population’s mean age hovered around forty-five. The mean age for those with the decision-making ability to influence growth or progress stood ten years older. So, the town remained a haven for Mathews’ senior 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 usually presumed one bought liquor at 11:30 to get drunk. This then of course led to whispers on why anyone wanted 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 saw him buying alcohol at such an hour. To see him he determined they too would be in the ABC store as well which may prove equally embarrassing for them. He felt uncomfortable buying alcohol in the gossipy community because drinking, if he chose to engage in it, remained his business and no one else’s. Also, he found hypocrisy ran deep amongst gossips.
Levi 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. Levi’s shoulders slumped. If he had a choice of running into him or the pastor of his church, he would have chosen the latter. Levi’s father swilled beer, chewed tobacco, watched NASCAR, hated minorities, and if an order for rednecks existed, his father would be a grand wizard.
Dad walked straight to him, glanced at the liter of spiced rum and smiled, “That’s a bit strong for you isn’t it, son?” Levi smelled on his father’s breath a mixture of tobacco and alcohol that regularly jump started his mornings and kept him going through the day. Gin blossoms dotted his face and red lightning scoured his eyes.
“It’s not for me, though I suspect you will pretend not to believe me,” Levi replied with a sigh. His father always tried his best to get under Levi’s skin by misjudging or underestimating him. In fact, his father’s mere presence irritated him.
Levi 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 liked 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.
“I’m just trying to be friendly, Levi.” His father feigned sadness and walked off. Levi noticed the cashier’s frown. His father had a knack for amplifying his own stature and making Levi, who he belittled his whole life, out to be the inconsiderate jerk.
“Thank you very much. Have a nice day,” Levi said to the store clerk as he accepted his change, hoping his manners might sway the clerk’s sour opinion of him.
He first thought to shout a “good bye”, flee the building, and return to the old woman, but as always, the farfetched belief his father’s kindness might be genuine, crept in.
Wearing a frown, he walked to the back of the store to receive the hypocritical chastisement from his father who no doubt shopped for liquor of his own. He didn’t care to explain himself. Levi left his home the moment he turned eighteen as though fire engulfed it and had made his own way for fifteen years. Long ago he reached a point where he no longer respected his father and shortly after he stopped loving him. But he hoped in his heart the man might be redeemable. Not without intelligence, Levi had surpassed his father in wisdom and integrity, though to his chagrin not in financial savviness.
His father had a real knack for understanding the value of land in the county. Ten years earlier he scooped up several waterfront properties which he 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 act 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 good. I just bought a new boat,” he turned and smiled like the Grinch, “a thirty footer.” He returned to looking at the bottles. “Perhaps you can afford a boat one day, even if it’s a small aluminum one.”
Levi rolled his eyes. The man never saw the value in being courteous at least not to Levi. “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 should 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 glared at Levi with a clenched jaw. His greater height fueled his father’s sense of superiority. His eyes dared Levi to back talk him again. They flamed with a desire to crack a liquor bottle against Levi’s skull.
Levi 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…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?”
Levi 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 swirled. 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 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.”
Levi 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.”
Levi 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, Levi and his father always sought to get in the last shot as they knew if spoken strategically, the words could ruin the other’s day.
On this occasion, Levi’s poisonous, yet truthful shot concerning his father’s drinking problem and the false insinuation his father, a homophobe, liked men, 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 Levi’s mother divorced him for reasons neither parent revealed.
He remembered every detail of the night she left. Only ten, 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 listened 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. “Then you can raise Levi to be like you!”
“Don’t be stupid! This has nothing to do with taking Levi! 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!” he screamed.
They fought for an hour and finally he heard his mother shout, “I’m leaving!”
She stormed the stairs and burst into Levi’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! He stays with me!” She grimaced in pain. Levi froze.
She tried to resist and grab Levi 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. Levi followed and saw her sobbing on the walk way. His father took his mother’s purse and threw it at her. He pushed Levi inside the house, marched out onto the porch, and slammed the door behind him.
Levi ran to the window. His father stood over his mother and growled with a glowing red face but Levi heard only mumbling. She shook her head pleading with him but heard nothing. His father stormed back into the house and slammed the door behind him. His mother, seeing Levi in the window, shouted to him with tears pouring. “I love you Levi! Mommy loves you!”
His father dropped the blinds. “Get away from the window!” he barked.
Levi 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 in his pain but he dared not show tears to his father.
That night his father snored in his recliner and Levi 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 it. She 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 Levi 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 was okay, but he didn’t stir.
Levi tiptoed into his room, closed the door just the way his mother always had, and flew 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 Levi 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 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.
Her love vanished the day his father threw her out the door. Each time Levi 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 would 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.
Levi’s father had intercepted all her letters and phone calls to him and out of spite he refused to allow her contact with Levi. His mother did not seek custody because she feared Levi’s father might hurt her or Levi and so she waited and prayed for ten long years.
Despite his father’s cold upbringing, he still felt betrayed when Levi left him and treated Levi as an ingrate who should have offered more respect. Levi never lived with his father again and his father blamed his mother’s influence on the fact Levi acted nothing like him.
Truly Levi did not hunt, fish, or engage in activities his father considered “manly” but even if he did, his father would still seek to outperform him; still desire to belittle him. Levi found little point in participating? They would never get along. Levi was too cold a reminder of his mother.
Why his parents argued and the cause of his mother’s expulsion Levi never discovered. He summoned the courage once to ask his mother, but with a worried sigh she said not knowing benefitted him more than knowing. 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 eight lonely years because of it and he believed they owed him an answer.
Despite getting in the last word, Levi continued to argue in his mind with his father as he drove back to Haven Beach road. He sped along the slippery gravel road, grinding his hands into the steering wheel as he drove. Why do I bother! What do I owe the man? Nothing! And yet I continue to try simply for the sake of being good.
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. Thankfully no one had seen him. Feeling foolish he jumped out of the car and waved the grit aside. All four tires looked fine. He shook his head at how angry his father had made him. The man did more than irritate him. He rubbed raw inside Levi 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 into his car to avoid appearing 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 step on my porch angry! The wasps don’t like it,” she scolded.
Levi hesitated and watched the swarm of wasps buzz to and fro, “What do you suggest?”
“Well calm yourself down of course!” she chuckled as though the answer should have been obvious. “A man walks 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?”
Levi 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 he saw no other chairs and eased against a porch column testing its strength. As she removed the paper bag, he glanced at the wasps huddled around their nests.
“You don’t feed them wary travelers who stroll 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. “Please open that for me.”
“Sure.” He untwisted the top and handed back the bottle. “My wife is a wonderful cook!”
She grasped the bottle with both hands and her arms shook and loose skin jiggled as she raised it to her mouth. She swigged a large gulp but like a trained drinker, didn’t shudder at the burn.
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 to Levi, “Thank you.”
“You can have the whole thing,” he offered.
“I’m only a little old lady. I can’t drink all that!”
Levi’s shoulders sank. He could have bought dinner at the store for the money he spent.
“What’s got you so riled up?” 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?”
Levi examined her withered face and grimaced as though he beheld a sight painful to the eyes. Time had ravaged her beauty. She may 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 found 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.”
Levi raised an eyebrow. He assumed she would side with his elder father or offer sage advice on how sons misunderstood their parents, but she did neither.
“Now,” she flashed a wicked witch smile and leaned towards him as though he were the main course for dinner. “You want to hear about the ghosts of Old House Woods!”