Some Thoughts on Marriage Before I Wed

By one notion, Cleo rose in the Van Lear morning. He’d dress, shout something smart to Frankie as her goodbye, drive to Druther’s in Paintsville and drink his coffee with the boys, then leave it all behind for that day’s make-or-break at Bob’s Pay Lake. Cleo’d park a straight line into that gravel lot, then raise the hatch on his Chevette to take out the six gleaming shark poles he knew could work the only job he had, to hook Old 69, the resident mud cat, a fish as large as a lie no one believed. All the men put their dollars in that cat’s jar, a good-sport Powerball for the one of them who would pull him up out of his loungey, bottom-feeding privacies, his forgotten holler I’m 69 sure preferred to be forgotten in.

***

I never knew Cleo. He was my love’s daddy’s daddy, a man who I’ve been told was gentle and kind, with enough violence in him to make Frankie laugh off her old life. Together, they were hoarders; between the wiles of Time magazines and electronic parts, paths cut through their home, making way to the necessaries. In Cleo’s day Van Lear was a Consolidated town. He’d mined, briefly, as a scab, but his career was cards and liquor. He told his family he was a rich man, kept wads of money in his pocket, rolls of money, to show. The house sat on Silk Stocking Loop and presented itself like a boss’s house, with a porch that rose to a second-story roof by way of four grand, vinyl-sided columns. Triumphant and drunk, Cleo would clean out the dress store for Frankie just to see her smile. Then he’d lose it all the next night; return her dresses in the day’s light. Big was Cleo’s style; I can see those shark poles dug into the beach’s curve, a neat, strategic row, the sure future. “Mix up some biscuits and gravy, Frankie! I’m taking this boy fishing!” he’d say to the whole house, the whole town, if it would only listen.

***

The son of Cleo had a different style: bigger. Bigger shouting. Bigger praying. Harder hitting. A miner, exhausted from working his double shift, he fell asleep driving home one early morning, sent his truck end over end over end in an empty field. Paralyzed on one side of his body and for ten years more he terrorized his family. When his wife finally reached her courage, she left him, then he married another woman, and another.

***

My people prefer to be small. Grandaddy raised his family on Buckhorn, about a hundred miles from Cleo and Frankie, on an isolated few acres where he and my grandma toiled to feed their ten kids and the annual pig. He’d drank rotgut when he was young, but did not run it, as his brothers did. Instead he sobered into a silence and rolled his own. “All your grandfather wanted was to be up in that holler with his family, where everybody else would leave him alone,” my mother’s repeated warning against—what? —not seeing the world, I suppose, which I have done, thanks entirely to my mother’s leave-taking of that family when she was a girl.

***

She likes to fish, my mom. After she reached her courage and left my father, a boyfriend came around who sold fast cars and who showed up many a night at our door in a Corvette or a Firebird, soused and bullying; my mother shouting at me to call the police. On the good Saturdays, Kenneth would take her fishing, and sometimes we’d all congregate to fry what they’d caught, eat together, play cards together, until the sun fell. He was the only boyfriend, the risk my mom took. After she left him, for years after, we’d be at the doctor’s office or the mall only to find upon our return another dead fish tied to the car’s door handle. I often think about Frankie. She had “the sight,” I’m told, ESP. She could see into the veil and tell what would soon happen, but she could not see her son for who he was, or her husband; or, she did and did not mind.

***

A pay lake is a dirty place. Shallow, stagnant waters teeming with old-growth fish meant for the wild rivers. Trophies, they call the flatheads and blues, most of them twenty years-old and big as me. As in, something you win. As in, yours. A catfish has no scales on her skin. She’s fleshy and with those long whiskers; all of it, her whole body, a sensor that can smell and taste and hear by touch, by nearness. She’ll spend her day in quiescence, under some rock, still, but alert; we’ll say she’s sleeping but we’re wrong.

***

Before Pangea, all of Kentucky was algae; a promise secured under the sea. Today, we are landlocked. We fake our lakes and bury our headstreams. We import drinking water from Virginia. We don’t know each other or each other’s places or our own. The first time I ever was in Van Lear my love took me there. It was early days for our affair, snow still on the ground. We drove through rows of houses sheltering dealers and users, neighbors with cue balls for eyes, as well as the rows of tidy homes belonging to the Church of Christ faithful, the neighbors with a plan. Since 1945, since the war was won, Van Lear has been unincorporated; officially, it is an accident of buildings, an undetermined human population with no representation and no boundaries; a place that exists because of tradition. Because that’s the way it’s always been. Because we all got to have someone. As my love drove that cold day I watched out the window, wondering to God how any of us choose each other, if not by tradition. But that’s another story worth believing only if you have a dollar in the jar.  

Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render/An Apocalypse, which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. Among her awards are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Native to Kentucky, Howell is the Senior Editor at Oxford American.

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