My father was possessed by a trailer.
Maybe that’s how it all began, what let the evil in. Of course, my family always had semi-permeable membranes. If we stared at something long enough, it got into us.
My Mom was obsessed with doing paint-by-numbers and would get trapped in magenta jungles for days or lose herself in adding froth to cerulean blue waves. Sometimes I imagined I saw her tiny body in the middle of those waves. My older sister Shirley Jean’s mind was born broken, and her thoughts curled hard and round like the pill bugs she studied on the underside of concrete blocks. As a six-year-old child, I myself couldn’t look for long at the arthritic black oak out back, its trunk crooked like a broken hip, without feeling compelled to spread my arms, the blood rustling in my veins, and long to bear fruit. Some families had congenital palsy. Some had cancer of the mouth. Some had the diabetes. We had that.
But I think the trailer was something else, a more severe condition, less a whisper than a megaphone. Something from the trailer my father saw, some father the trailer saw, and bodies were crossed.
The trailer wasn’t the first thing though. First, there was the voice. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but now I think the voice was a warning.
Imagine this: Big Flat, Arkansas, a small mountain town populated by trailers and drafty white country houses with miles between them, knobby land, all elbows and knees.
Imagine my parents. They’re nestled in the tiny sunken twin bed they share, a pass-me-down from Uncle Orell. Exhausted from working all day, they snore like hogs. My father has been hauling hay for a neighbor. His bloodied palms are slathered in Vaseline and a foul-smelling brown paste made of honey and black walnut. Yellow, rubber kitchen gloves stretch tightly over them to speed healing while he sleeps. My mother smells of burnt feathers. She’s been toiling at the chicken factory, where she works part time, wrestling convulsing chickens out of galvanized cages and burning their beaks to stubs. Sometimes when she comes home, she presses her face into her pillow and cries.
Mountain fog swirls around a huddle of cows and a tool shed with a corrugated tin roof, coils into the wheel wells of a beaten, red pick-up truck, and makes the sink holes steam. My father, Johnny Lee—tall, hawk-nosed, apple-cheeked, and with hair like black thorns—wakes up, heart hammering. He’s heard something.
He tunes into his surroundings.
The electric generator rhythmically thumping like a wet towel smacking metal, the crickets chirping, the groaning of the trailer as it slowly sinks into the earth as all things must. And then there it is again! A woman’s voice. Whispering his name. He strokes my mother’s cheek to see if she’s awake. She’s not.
“Johnnnnnnnnnny,” the voice calls.
The voice sounds just like my mother’s. The problem is that she’s asleep beside him. So he tells himself that it can’t be her. Yet, peering into the darkness, impossibly he does make out her face. Shadowed, floating, seemingly bodiless in the doorway that separates the bedroom from the kitchen. It’s a hungry face, hungry like he’s never seen a human face before.
“Johnny,” the voice whispers quick and fast.
My father steps on the floor, thinks better of it, and snatches his feet back beneath the covers. No, it’s not. Not my mother. It’s something disguised as her.
Terrified, he shakes her. She groggily mumbles and immediately falls back asleep, as if her head had poked through the waves for a moment before again succumbing to the weight of water. He looks back at the doorway, and the face is gone.
A few months later, my father’s best friend Willie Smithers shot a stranger, his girlfriend Lorna, and then himself in the head. There is no clear causality between these two events. The nighttime vision. The shooting. But my father later decided that the first event was a sign, similarly, he said, to how Abraham Lincoln saw himself with two faces in the mirror, one pale, and interpreted them as foretelling he would be elected a second term but wouldn’t live through it.
Willie and my Dad had grown up together, my father tall and taciturn next to Willie’s scrawny, lantern-jawed chattiness. They’d dated many of the same women, fighting over more than a few, the fight usually taking the form of them each telling funny, unflattering stories about the other. They’d drunkenly staged crab walk and lawn mower races in each other’s yards, not to mention literal pissing contests in the snow. Though they would have never said such a thing, they loved each other, and, whenever one drew near, the eyes of the other brightened.
Years later, when I asked my mother about exactly what went down, she said Willie killed the man who was messing around with Lorna first—with one gunshot to the right temple, one in the belly, and one in the chest—and then Lorna as she tried to wriggle through a bedroom window. Then he sat on their waterbed, put the gun under his chin, and shot the top of his own head off.
At the time though, no one would give me details. I knew only something bad had happened to Willie and Lorna, and they wouldn’t be coming around no more. And I knew, too, that something was different about my father.
He’d always had trouble remaining still. His people, mountain folk and dirt farmers for generations back, were walkers of fields and woods, watchers of crows, deer, stars, and moons. Moving was his default rhythm. Add to this to the fact that his parents and now us were on the itinerant work circuit. Every year or so would find us travelling to wherever the work was good. Sometimes California. Sometimes Kentucky. Sometimes Arkansas. But, after Willie, Dad’s restlessness grew worse and he took to walks that lasted for hours. Increasingly these walks, often with me and our dog HelloDolly by his side, led him to Willie’s trailer.
We visited trailers a lot in those days. But Willie’s trailer was different. A tan doublewide that sagged in the middle with a rusting steel tub out back where violets flared like matches in the spring and in which an old Catholic lady had died before Willie assumed ownership, it was filled with evil spirits.
I knew the trailer was bad the first time we visited, even before the thing happened to Willie, and I stopped walking in my tracks as soon as I saw it.
“What’s wrong with you, boy? Why’d you stop?”
I looked past my father to the trailer. It sat fat and mean in a pool of shadows from the grove of trees nearby, testament to Willie’s scorn for tornado warnings. Its scabby yard was sick with mangy grass, and two dirty, yellow dogs sat despondent in an empire of their own dried-white turds.
Despite my pleas that day to go back home, my father stayed, and over time I grew sort of used to the trailer. After the thing with Willie though, I didn’t even want to set eyes on it anymore. Here, at last, was proof positive of the trailer’s nature. I thought the trailer’s evil predated not just Willie but the old woman who died in the trailer. I thought the trailer had been built bad by a bad man in a bad world for bad reasons and that it had caused Willie to do what he did. I decided then that it wasn’t really a trailer but a thing that had assumed trailer shape to do its work: the filling of men with rage and hopelessness.
Mom warned Dad about visiting the trailer. She said, “It must have been an evil spirit that made Willie do what he did.”
For Mom, this was like saying, “It must have been the flu.”
My Grandma Mary, though, was the first to explain how to spot evil spirits. The only person I’d ever known who could make the statement “I’m going to pray for you” sound like a threat, she wore Coke-bottle glasses perched below mannequin-like blue eyes and had skinny shoulders so stiff and knotted up from bursitis that, instead of moving normally, she lurched like a robot. Robot Grandma Mary claimed Jesus visited her at night to brief her on who was under the influence of unclean spirits—which was most everybody—and she set out crosses as a kind of roach motel to catch them. But unclean spirits were wily. So she had two other methods of defense ever ready. The first was feet.
After watching a television special on reflexology, she made a connection between one’s immortal soul and the soles of one’s feet. She would wander around the house, her eyes seemingly a thousand miles away, but all the time she was scanning, evaluating, as meticulously as any doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, the coloring of skin, the smell of sweat, the swivel of limbs in sockets, the glassiness of eyes. And if she found you wanting, she went for the feet. Once Grandma Mary got hold of your feet, bad things happened. If she pressed under your big toe, your neck would cramp for the day. If she wedged her thumbs into the middle of your heel, you might find your right arm temporarily paralyzed.
Grandma Mary’s second method of demonic defense was a list of don’ts. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain. Don’t touch your privates unless it was quickly, while not looking, with a washrag. Above all, don’t touch food unless she gave it to you. To make sure her last rule was observed, she put padlocks nearly the size of bricks on the refrigerator and the kitchen cabinets.
One day, when our desire for sweets was especially strong, Shirley Jean came up with the idea of unscrewing the cabinets from their hinges, and we had an orgy of deliciousness.
When Grandma came back from church, which was different from ours although she said hers was the TRUE one, she knew right away what we’d done. I suspected Jesus.
“You.” She pointed at me. “You tell me the truth, John Ervin. You been in the cabinet, ain’t you?”
Part of me wanted to admit it, to take my punishment and have it over with. But a bigger part of me refused to give Robot Grandma Mary the satisfaction.
“No,” I said. And then it happened. I could feel it start, tried to stop it, but couldn’t. A smile sprang up, as involuntary and inappropriate as an erection beneath a washcloth.
Robot Grandma Mary stomped closer to me and hunched over, her face inches from mine.
“You’re lying, boy. You’re smiling. You know what it means when you smile when you’re doing wrong, don’t you?”
“It means you got a demon in you. It’s that demon smiling, not you. A demon can’t help but smile when evil is being done. That’s how you know they’re there.”
While my father hardly smiled after the thing with Willie, nevertheless I could feel the evil spirit working on him. He fought it. He did. I knew he fought it because some days he was like he used to be—making me laugh by using my socks as foul-mouthed puppets, juggling eggs, and pointing out to us the different plants and their names. But then his own father, Grandpa John, shoved him over the edge.
Grandpa John was a huge, hairy bull of a man with hair hard-parted to the right side and, given how strong and broad the rest of his body looked, a strangely flabby, round face decorated with perversely red chicken lips. Grandma Mary declared that Grandpa John had been taken over by evil spirits long ago. Probably while doing his military service in France, a depraved country if there ever was one. These particular spirits were spirits of appetite, and he had many appetites, the latest of which was a hunger for my mother.
“Ride with me, Shirley. I want to get to know the gal my son’s gone sweet on.”
He said this a lot. Whenever he drove into town, he’d insist Mom ride shotgun. To keep the peace, she’d say “OK.” But the truth was that he’d unnerved her ever since Shirley Jean was born. He’d swaggered into the hospital room with Grandma Mary a few hours after the birth, and hadn’t said “Congratulations,” or delivered some morsel of sage wisdom about the delights or travails of parenthood, but rather had said one thing and one thing only. “I bet it felt better going in than coming out, huh?”
During their car rides, he confessed things. He wanted to leave Mary because, let’s face it; she was nutty as a fruitcake. He had a lovechild by an Indian woman he’d met while working at that one gas station in Kentucky. He’d pissed in the coffee pot at church one time just for the hell of it.
Early one Sunday, about two months after the Willie episode, while Grandma Mary was at church, Dad was out duck hunting, and Shirley Jean and I were playing at a neighbor’s, Grandpa John came up on Mom while she was weeding the garden.
He stood quietly watching her for a few minutes, his hands herding the change in his pockets. (Later, my mother told me, “I felt his eyes on me like two big ole’ crows on my shoulders”). Suddenly, he said, “Why don’t you come on into the trailer with me for a minute, Shirley?”
She went, figuring he probably just wanted to make another confession. But that wasn’t it. No, he was in the mood for doing one more thing he’d have to confess for. She realized then that his confessions had never been about getting something off his chest. They’d been gloating.
Inside, he shoved her onto the couch and climbed on top of her. Screaming for help, she twisted and turned and finally managed to kick him off. Outside, she made a beeline straight for the woods and cowered there until she heard Dad’s truck.
She flagged Dad down on the road, crying so hard that she had to repeat herself several times before he understood. But even then he refused to understand her meaning.
She said again.
He shook his head. “Listen. You must have misunderstood, honey.”
Mom spit and bawled harder. “I didn’t misunderstand nothing.”
So Dad faced his father.
“How can you even think that about me, son? How can you think your own daddy would do that? I don’t know what Shirley told you or what she might have misinterpreted, but it ain’t true. Not a smidge. You know me. I’m a joker. But I don’t mean nothing by it.”
In the end, my father refused to choose one side or another, hoping, I guess, that the whole thing would blow over. But it didn’t. Mom refused to speak to him, and he, in turn, stopped talking to her. And while his change began with Willie’s trailer, it came on him now like winter. He left the house as soon as he got up. Sometimes, he wouldn’t come back for the whole night.
I was the only one he talked to at all now. Part of this was probably due to my being so young, my head just reaching his waist, that it probably felt as safe as talking to your dog. I can’t recall a lot of what he said. When I think back, I’m just able to dredge disconnected phrases from my memory. Something about the number of wild hogs in Florida and how to hunt them. Something about what caliber of bullet you need to bring down a bear. But a few things remain clearly in my mind.
One day he was on our trailer steps, assembling a fishing fly when, suddenly, he made a hurt animal noise in his throat and turned away from the porch.
When he faced me again, he said, “So many of them didn’t make it, son.” He snapped his fingers. “Your Uncle Darryl, Willie. Your life can end just like that. You think you’re safe, but you ain’t.”
* * *
The morning before Mom left Dad, Shirley Jean and I decided to camp in the backyard for the night. Mom wasn’t crazy about our plans.
“Do what? Them? Alone in the wilderness? Are you nuts? There’s cougars. And bears!”
Dad said, “We can put Shirley Jean in charge.”
“Oh, yeah. And we can invite a monkey to cook our breakfast, too.”
“Have them watch each other, then. Jesus. They’ll be fine. People lived outside for most
of history. At least part of the time. You got a lot more chance cracking your noggin in the shower or electrocuting yourself than getting eaten by a critter. Besides, there’s the dog.”
I was almost asleep, lulled into slumber by said dog snorting and smacking her lips, and the crackle of the fire, which sounded like an invisible someone methodically breaking small sticks, when, a little past midnight, HelloDolly let out a muffled bark.
I recognized my father’s voice but couldn’t see him in the dark at first. It occurred to me that perhaps the trailer had done something with his body, leaving only his voice behind. But then he was squatting next to me, one hand on my shoulder, and his breath was warm and beery.
“Come walk with me, son.”
We walked through the stony field across from our trailer and in a few minutes reached a bluff that tumbled into a gorge, a reddened drop in the earth like an ax-wound. According to Dad, the color of the gorge came from the days when the Indians would run entire herds of buffalo off the cliff. “Sometimes,” he told me once, “late at night, you can hear the echoes.”
That night the darkness was so complete that it seemed nothing existed but our breathing. When I try to recall what the trees or field looked like during our walk, all I see is black construction paper. But I do remember the bulge of a rock pressed under the sole of my foot. I do remember that we stood there for what seemed like hours. And I remember wanting to say something but being unable to think of anything. I did not know what you talked about in the dark with your father.
I was about to ask if we could go back home when Dad put his hand on my back.
“Our blood is bad. You should know. You should you know that it’s always been like that. Branscums break easy. Not just me, but your mamaw, your aunts, your uncles, your sister. Most all of them have had their spells, and now—”
He went silent, and I wondered what terrible things there were that could break men and women. I wondered what it was that made some people prone to break, and others without a crack no matter how many falls they took. For a moment, I felt that he was of a mind to push me, and I imagined the force gathering in his palm. But suddenly his hand dropped. I stumbled away from the edge and looked up at his shape.
“Take care of your sister,” he said and stalked off in a way that I knew meant that I wasn’t to follow.
My father didn’t come home that night, and, early the next morning, Shirley Jean and I woke up to our mother packing clothes.
“We’re leaving,” she announced.
“We’re going to visit my daddy in Kentucky. We’re taking a bus.”
After we left, my father disappeared like a trailer into a tornado. He would never live a normal life again. Oh, there was another wife for a short time. Another child—a daughter. But this landing was temporary. The marriage lasted a year, a year during which the woman (Rita? Mary Anne?) would sometimes get drunk and frog punch his arm where he’d had the name of my mother tattooed.
Maybe he would have stayed with his new family longer, but the spirit drove him off again, unwilling to allow him any place to lay his head. He went back to hitchhiking and drifting, walking and hoboing, from one state to the next, fishing and hunting and drinking and picking up day work until the day his body was found, curled up like a pile of rags near a stairwell in a Sarasota parking garage. It had been there for several days and was starting to stink. But people hadn’t wanted to bother what they thought was just another homeless guy sleeping.