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You Can't Skin a Cat Without Getting Hair in Your Mouth
“Well, you want to know about your grandpa? My grandma said, “I’ll tell you, but it’s not a story that should be repeated. It brings back too many bad memories for the family. All right. I might as well go on and say it. It’s no use trying to pretend that it didn’t happen. When your grandpa was fifty-two, he fell off a bridge. The date was August 14, 1990. We don’t really talk about him much anymore, but I just want you to know what happened, even though we’ll never really be sure of the truth.
“As you know, I grew up in Booneville, Mississippi, a small town in Prentiss County. I would say that the population was around 8,000 at the time. Since it’s a dry county, you have to venture farther out into the countryside to drink. There are no bars, just churches. That doesn’t stop people from smuggling alcohol in, though. People will always find a way around rules that are too stringent. When you go out to a restaurant, you tend to order sweet or unsweet tea. That’ll never change.
“Despite some things he did, he was a good man, your grandpa. He was a fun-loving, good-natured person and a talented artist, but unfortunately, he had a problem. That, and strange things happened to him. I loved him, but sometimes, things got tough. I started noticing the consequences of his alcohol addiction. Sometimes, when he came home after work, he wasn’t himself, you know. He had strange illusions, hallucinations about his younger sister that died at the age of twenty-two. He would say that she was sitting on the hood of his car, telling him that he had to go home. He just kept on mumbling about seeing his sister. In time, I grew to ignore it.
“At any rate, he was a successful businessman. Very personable and as handy as a side pocket on a shirt, as your great grandma used to say. He owned his own tile business and even built us a nice Spanish style house in Mississippi, which was a rare sight to see. But after work, he and his buddies would get together and drink. They played the music real loud and liked to have a good time. Later, we moved to California to make a new living there. Then, I decided to divorce him. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.
“So he moved back to Mississippi, and I stayed in California. One day, I got a call from the police, saying that he had fallen off a forty-foot bridge with low railings. It was at night, while he and his buddies were drinking together after work again. The story was that he went to get something in his car, which was parked close to the bridge. When he didn’t come back, his friends went to go look for him and found that he had stumbled off the bridge and landed in the shallow stream, all cut and bruised by the rough stones at the bottom.
“There never was an official police report or investigation- everyone figured he had just tripped, being drunk and all. No one really asked many questions, they just assumed. Everyone knew of his alcoholism. I never even called the guys that were with him that night, but your aunt did. I never found it necessary to. No one knew any more than what the police told us. We weren’t there. But, later, there were rumors. Especially at the funeral, which took place in Lee County. In a small town, you’ll never be able to escape the gossip. People talk. Some say he tripped. Some say he was pushed because he was caught fooling around with somebody’s wife. Your grandpa did some shameful things, but still, he was a good man.
“I guess we’ll never know what really happened, but the moral of the story is, don’t get so drunk that you don’t know what you’re doing. Your morals and your sense are two of the most valuable things you can have. No matter how hard things seem, with determination, you can always persevere. He should have gotten help for his addiction or at least tried to make an effort. For me. For his three kids. But he didn’t, and no one can change God’s destiny. What’s done is done. I probably couldn’t have stopped him. I wasn’t even in Mississippi when his accident happened. Just remember, now that you’re a teenager, kids at parties may start to put pressure on you to drink. A little’s okay, when you’re older, but don’t overdo it. It will always come back to bite you. Nothing’s easy: you can’t skin a cat without getting hair in your mouth.”
This is the story my grandma told me to warn me about the problems that arise from drinking. It gave me a greater understanding of my grandpa’s personality, his identity, and how it affected the lives of my grandma, mom, and her sisters. I never knew my grandpa. I only recognized his tan, sunburned face, course brown mustache, and tan cowboy hat from the photo in our guest room. We call it the southern room, in honor of him and our southern heritage. Then I wonder, does it matter who my grandpa was? If my grandpa was an alcoholic, does that mean I will be too? My ancestors may shape who I am, in regards to my heritage and cultural roots, but they do not determine who I am.
I wonder what my life would be like if he was still alive, and if I had met him. Would he still be in Mississippi, running his tile business? I remember all the memorable trips we took to Mississippi when I was younger, to visit my great grandma. My brother and I used to pick gallons of blueberries in the hot, sticky heat, until we had to go inside to the air conditioning. My great grandma would have chicken and dumplings or biscuits and blueberry jam made. I wonder if having my grandpa there would have changed anything. I picture him smiling, enjoying our company and drinking a beer, alongside my grandma and me writing a song about blueberry picking. Or what if he had changed? Would my grandma have remarried him? If that had happened, then my grandma wouldn’t be remarried to a farmer, living on a pig farm in Kansas. Maybe she would have stayed in California or moved back to Mississippi. There is no way to change the past and no way to know what would have happened if things had been different.
But after hearing this story, I realized that I really didn’t understand what my grandpa’s life must have been like, or what my family faced. I am totally ignorant of what it would be like to have an alcoholic father, especially one who died so young. My grandpa must have had some inner turmoil at the time. He had just suffered from a painful and violent divorce, in which he lost custody of his children and moved back to Mississippi, with the old, dusty country roads and the friendly southern hospitality, terrain he was familiar with. Perhaps he had jumped as a cry for help. He had secretly been depressed, attempting to use alcohol to shield himself from the reality of his inner troubles of divorce and leaving behind three kids. But no one ever really discussed the idea. However, a southern man who liked to laugh and have fun with his friends did not seem like the type to jump off a bridge. The bridge was only forty feet high, though. It would have been easy to jump, to will the problems away, although jumping from a higher place would have provided a more exhilarating thrill. One of the aspects that makes heights so frightening is that anyone has the power to will their life away, with just one step off the edge.
It could very well have been that he jumped, but for a different reason. An image formed in my head. There was a woman, a young woman, with beautiful locks of brown hair, blowing in the wind of the warm, muggy summer evening. She peered from behind a rock, silent and nameless. The sun had just set, and my grandpa and his friends were laughing, toasting beers to their prosperous tile business. He then offered to fetch another case of beer from his car. On his way there, a voice called out to him. “It’s me. Come closer. Don’t be afraid.”
He whirled around, seeing a faint white wisp of fabric in the distance, as pure as the driven snow. He could see her clearly, the same long, wispy brown hair flowing down her shoulders. She always wore the same outfit when he saw her- the white cotton dress. Barefoot, his innocent little sister always sat on the hood of his car, warning him, leading him. “Follow me. You can do it. Come closer. Don’t be afraid.” He gazed into her blue green-eyes as vast as the ocean and smiled. He was unsure of how to reach her. She seemed distant. “Only one step. Take one step and you can finally be with me.” All it took was one step off, and he vanished into the dark depths of the abyss below. He saw her. She was real to him, but to everyone else, she was a shadow that had already passed on. The reality was that she had died. She had drowned in a river one crystal clear summer day while she and her fiancé were enjoying a picnic lunch. He had just proposed to her and she felt as golden as the sun’s rays. She tripped on a branch and her screams were unheard as she flailed her arms and disappeared.
My grandpa’s buddies, meanwhile, were whistling and laughing, nonchalant and carefree. They began to wonder what was taking their friend so long so they called out his name, walking closer to where he parked his car. It was only with a flashlight that Jeb saw it. A body below. Never to be heard from again. As nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, he panicked. “What the hell? Is that him? What happened to him?” They all figured that he must have fallen off the bridge. The railings were low to the ground and unable to be clearly seen in the dark. Jeb, the designated driver, called the police, who then came and removed the body. Nobody could believe it. Nobody could forget it. These were the kinds of things that happened in crime shows on TV, not in real life. You never know what could happen unless it happens to you.
Perhaps he fell. He was drunk that night, as were the rest of his buddies. It would be the normal, plausible explanation. No one found evidence that proved that anything else out of the ordinary had happened. The railings were short. It was a forty-foot bridge at night. Not too far from the stream to mistake it for part of the road.
Or perhaps he was pushed. Everyone has enemies. Rumor had it that after his divorce, he was sneaking around with his neighbor’s wife. It was a sweltering day in July when my grandpa was working on repairing his neighbor’s tile roof. Then, a woman in her early forties came outside and offered him a cold glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. His fingers were blistering, his forearms tired, beads of sweat dripping down his face. He noticed her for the first time after the divorce. She was a fine little blonde with smooth hair and a smile like honey. Her pink rose-colored lips complemented her golden Repunzel hair that draped down her shoulders. Her lean and muscular legs almost caused him to fall backwards off the ladder. She told him to be careful- they didn’t want to have to repair the roof and his spine.
Her name was Fay. He bumped into her a few times at the supermarket, then later followed her to the post office, making an excuse to see her again. His eyes lit up like a puppy’s at the sight of her walking toward him. “Hey, how are ya?” She had one crooked tooth and a silver filling at the back of her mouth. Not that he minded. He responded that he was fine and was wondering if she needed anything while her husband was away visiting his sick mother. “Sure, why don’t you drop by tonight for a beer or something? I could use some company while Jeb is gone.”
The next thing he knew they were together on the sofa, lips to lips, their bodies touching. “Hello? Fay? Ya there?” Jeb sauntered in the front door, his suitcase in hand. He gasped at what he saw. “Fay? What the hell are you guys doing? I’m gonna kill you! Get your hands off my wife, pal. I’m gonna kill you!” He meant it, too. After a short separation from his wife, Jeb joined Joe, Jim, and my grandpa for some drinks after work one August day. They were laughing and having fun as pals do. Jeb, who made sure not to get too loaded, asked to come with my grandpa to the car to get some more beer. As they were wandering off the main road, Jeb started yelling, cursing at him for sleeping with his wife. After throwing a few punches, Jeb shoved my grandpa, who hurtled to the depths below the bridge, into the stream. He panted, out of breath. He had not meant for this to happen. He only meant to teach him a lesson, not kill him. The only thing left for him to do was pretend not to have seen anything.
There’s no denying that my grandpa died at a young age. No one can bring him back, only in memory. He is not talked about; he is not gossiped about, anymore. He only remains a lesson to be learned from in the deep grooves of the back shelves of our minds. No matter what happened, his body lies in a grave in the Booneville cemetery. Yet, his spirit lurks in the stream where his body was found, aiding travelers with which path to take, warning them of stepping too close to the edge.