Mama said the reason she tossed Daddy to the curb was because he’d been living in a Georgia prison for getting lassoed into a counterfeiting scheme. I must’ve given her a puzzled look because she said, “Jail. He’s been in jail.” I knew what prison and jail were from cartoons. Men wore striped clothes and stood behind locked, iron bars. It was the word “counterfeiting” that had confused me. Unlike my mother’s boyfriend Roger, Daddy was soft-spoken. He always smiled, told stories, sang songs, recited poetry. He’d never throw a fit over a counter, though he’d once left me on one in a bank and had to drive back to get me.
What did make sense was my mother’s explanation of why she had to take a second job to put food on the table and shoes on our feet. She was a secretary for a doctor during the day and worked at The Circle Inn at night. Roger couldn’t help with the bills because he had his own family to support. And he had suffered a terrible tragedy when a car struck and killed his youngest son on a motor scooter while delivering newspapers early one morning.
Summer passed with no sign of Daddy. Mama couldn’t stay home with me during the day, so she used the doctor’s typewriter to change the date on my birth certificate to enroll me in first grade at Wilson Elementary in McAllen, Texas. She had socked me in kindergarten early too, but they didn’t require an ID. “You turn six years old twenty-eight days after the first of September deadline,” she explained. “So if anyone asks, you were born in 1954 not 1955.”
School terrified me with its nuclear bomb and fire drills. My teacher seemed nice enough, and I liked the colorful alphabet train that surrounded the huge blackboard. But my classmates called me Baby and Freckle Face, so I spent recess trailing my big sister Jeanne’s every move and grasping the hem of her poodle skirt.
Spring brought Easter and a dyed-blue chick that grew into a red rooster and attacked everyone but me. So I had to lug the trash into the backyard because no one else could step foot on the path to the garbage bin. Mama hated that rooster, but I loved him. So she gave me scraps to feed Red since she couldn’t stand to see man, beast, or fowl go hungry. Janie had to jump rope and teach cartwheels and backbends to me in the front yard while Jeanne lounged inside with her nose in a magazine.
One evening Roger visited my mother, and before their nap he said oilfield jobs were plentiful in a place called Louisiana. He then announced that he and Mama would marry after he divorced his ball and chain. My mother never cried or gave hugs but did both the next day when she shared the news with her best friend, Billie Burnside.
When the school year ended, Mama and Roger packed and toted a U-Haul behind a Chevy and puffed Phillip Morris and Raleighs to our new home in Lafayette, Louisiana, with my sisters and me, a puppy, and an orange tomcat in the back seat. We had to leave Red with Izzybel, a kind Mexican woman who fried melt-in-your-mouth tortillas when she’d come over to babysit and clean. My only wishes when we crossed the border were that my beloved rooster wouldn’t end up like the crazy, headless hen I’d once seen running circles in Izzy’s backyard.
And that Daddy would be able to find me.