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The Motherhead

Theron Montgomery


I MAKE THE SOUNDS IN MY HEAD so Mom and Dad won't hear, shooting cars through the rear window of our Buick with the black plastic Luger Dad bought me at the filling station for being good. I pretend I'm Audie Murphy or Vic Morrow. I imagine cars on the highway exploding and drifting off the road in flames. In the front seat, Mother cries as we come into Tuscaloosa. She dabs at her eyes under the black veil with Dad's handkerchief while Dad says nothing behind the wheel, staring ahead, the muscles of his jaw tight, and his hat low over his eyes. I stop shooting and Mother takes her compact from her handbag, peeling the veil up and over her hat. Her blue eyes are bleary and red. The shiner stands out like a large purple plum on her cheek.

Mother lifted her veil this afternoon when they picked me up in the school parking lot, and we were "going to Tuscaloosa again"--as Dad says during the week in his nagging voice when he and I are alone in the back yard, where he smokes Hav-A-Tampas and makes quiet and serious speeches as I chase fireflies or shoot Yankees, Mexicans, or maybe Japs with a stick rifle or stick machine gun--"So I can be with the Motherhead," he mimics Mother with a sneer. He gripes about taking off from work, about money going to Tuscaloosa; says there's going to be a surprise next time; says these things over and over--things not meant for Mother to hear.
Mother smiled when I climbed into the back seat after school with my books and sweater, and made me kiss her on her good cheek like I did this morning after breakfast. I knew she had packed for us. She looked over her seat and asked about school, the shiner pinching up and down on her cheek as she talked.
"Why are you so quiet, honey?" She studied me with a steady smile, the car already too quiet as Dad started the engine, too heavy with Mother's ruby lips and nails, her hat and veil, and the sweet smell of Chanel No. 5 my father gives her every year for her birthday.
I shrugged, not wanting to talk because Dad wouldn't. But Mother got me to by asking more questions: How was lunch? Miss Jones? My math test? She kept at it until my eyes were on her and I had to answer her with short, single words like Dad would do. Mother smiled at my answers, her eyes said we would be all right, fine, normal; Dad's silly mood would come around, and I was just tired from school, and once we got to Tuscaloosa, we would act better; and she would feel better, too--once we were back with the Motherhead.


THE STINK OF PAPER MILLS grows in the air. We go by stores, a cemetery, a dorm, and the football stadium. Dad huffs his breath as Mother turns the rearview mirror to inspect her face, reline her lipstick, shoot herself a smile. Dad snatches the rearview back into place when she's through.

"Hayden, come here," Mother says, pulling a comb out of her handbag. She turns and motions me up to the back of her seat, smiling for me to smile back. She begins to part my hair. "We want to look nice," she sings. "Tuck in your shirt."
I undo my belt, shove my shirt in, remembering the time in church when Dad grabbed Grandmother's arm to stop her from reaching down and pulling up the zipper of my Sunday pants. "Woman," he hissed through his teeth, turning people's heads in the pews around us, "tell him to zip his own zipper."
Mother finishes my hair, then turns and straightens in her seat. She puts everything into her handbag and carefully lowers the veil over her face as our Buick turns into the narrow alley crowded with houses. But she reopens her handbag and pulls Dad's handkerchief to dab her eyes.
I reach over the seat and squeeze her shoulder. Mother makes a brave smile through the veil. Dad doesn't say anything. The alley is quiet, empty. No one is about, as he turns the Buick before Grandmother's old white house and into the rutted gravel drive, stopping past the porch and before the garage and Grandpa's old red pickup. It's like before. Everything is still. Mother stares out at the side of the house as Dad cuts the engine and sets her face serious, like when we are in church, about to pray or sing a hymn.
"All right, now, come on," she nods to the house, gripping Dad's balled up handkerchief in one hand, the handle of her handbag in the other.
I tuck the Luger under my belt, and we get out and shut car doors in the quiet, fading afternoon. Dad unbuttons his collar and tugs his tie loose, and we wait on Mother as she bends over and strokes wrinkles out of her dress. Dad lifts his hat and runs his fingers through his black hair. I catch him staring at Mother's rear end as he replaces his hat on his head. He looks off and around. I smother a laugh in my hand, and look off, too. Dad offers me a stick of Beeman's, and I nod. He unwraps it for me, shoving the wrapper into his coat pocket. I take it, nod my thanks and chew, touching the Luger in my belt and keeping a lookout for Germans.
"Where's Grandpa?" I ask Dad.
He shakes his head, staring at Mother. "I don't know," Dad sighs and looks tired. Mother straightens and squares her shoulders. Her pumps crunch in the gravel toward the house.


DAD AND I FOLLOW Mother as she turns on the lights in the high rooms of stained and cracked plaster, varnished furniture and dark, closed drapes. It's just like last week, and the weeks before, our slow parade in floating dust. In the family room, Mother flicks on the lights, and her fingers make lines through the thin dust on the closed piano. I can remember Mother standing by the piano with a closed smile and Grandmother sitting large on the piano bench in a house dress, her head tilted back, and her mouth opened wide as she pounded the keys and sang "When the Saints Go Marching In."

The Motherhead is smiling in the center of the round dining table, just as we left it, standing on its neck in the cake pan mother gave the mortician when he brought the head back after the funeral. Grandmother's smile is frozen with big shiny teeth, red lips, loud rouge; the way the mortician made her up. Her silver hair is bright and stiff. Her large, wet and black eyes see you wherever you are in the room.
Dad and I stand off and Mom lifts her veil and carefully removes her hat so as not to mess her blonde perm, smiling as if to match the smile on the head. She goes and brushes something off Grandmother's forehead with her fingers.
"There," she says. She lays her purse and hat in a dining chair and surveys the room, the tall mirror above the cupboard, the matching china cabinet and the armoire.
"There," she says. She turns to Grandmother's head and steps back, smiling. It's as if the two smiles are drawing from each other.
Dad and I watch. We have done this many times. Dad parts his coat and shoves his hands into his trouser pockets. He forgot to remove his hat when he came in. I draw my Luger and go to the hallway to make sure the place is clear of burglars, sidle up to the opened doorway, peek right, then left, like Peter Gunn on TV. The hall's dark and empty. The phone is in the wall nook by Grandmother's empty easy chair. I fall back into the kitchen. It's empty, too; the counters bare and clean, a plate and a glass in the sink.
In the dining room, my parents' backs are turned to each other. Mother studies her reflection in the mirror, touching her hair; Dad has his hands deep in his pockets, seeming to study the framed pictures of Grandmother's chihuahuas lined on the opposite wall. His nostrils twitch; he keeps shifting his feet.
"I'm going outside," Dad finally says with a quick nod to Mother, and he leaves through the living room.
"All right, Tate," Mom drawls and doesn't turn from the mirror. It's one of those things Dad must do, go outside, be by himself, and smoke a Hav-A-Tampa.
"Hayden?" Mother sings, her eyes finding me in the mirror before I can say Dad's words, too.
"Yes, Ma'am?"
"Haven't I told you not to chew gum in the house?"
"Yes, Ma'am." I spit it out into my hand.
"Go find where grandfather is," she says, high and wheedling. She studies her face from side to side, the shiner flashing in the mirror: now, you see it; now, you don't.
"Tell him I'm here," she says.
"Okay."
I back out of the room, my other hand holding my gun, toward the hallway, and watch her back, imagining that if she turns and looks at me, I'm doomed.


I FLUSH THE GUM down the toilet, and in the hallway, two old-time gangsters, like in THE UNTOUCHABLES on TV, ambush me with machine guns. I shoot them and continue down the hall. Grandpa is in the guest room at the back of the house where he has been every weekend since the funeral: sitting in his rocker, staring out the window, or building bird houses at the work desk next to his bed.

"Y'all here again?" he looks up from his desk. The pinups of naked women and calendar girls in swim suits that Mother tore down last week have been mended with Scotch tape and are back up on the walls. Wood shavings speck Grandpa's white hair, his glasses, cover his T-shirt and denim overalls.
"Hi, Grandpa." I tuck my Luger into my belt. Grandpa turns back to nailing roof tile onto a blue bird house with a small hammer. Bird houses of different shapes and colors hang from wires in the ceiling. Unfinished bird houses, tools and wood shavings litter the floor. Dirty clothes are piled high on the unmade bed, the floor, and the opened dresser. Outside the windows, in the back yard, bird houses hang off every limb of the large pecan tree. They sway or turn in the breeze like mismatched ornaments.
"Got a Norwegian model here," Grandpa winks.
Before I can say anything, Grandpa stops hammering and stares out the window over his desk. "Drat," he yells, jumping up, dropping the hammer, and opening a desk drawer. He whips out a pistol, heavy and steel, and I stare as he opens the room's door to the back stoop, aims outside and fires. BOOM. Bark flies off the pecan tree. A squirrel dashes around the trunk and disappears.
"Damn squirrel!" Grandpa yells as he lowers the pistol. "Runs my birds off!"
"Hayden! Pop!" Mother shrills from the other end of the house.
Grandpa turns. He and I look at each other. "I forgot about her," he says.
Mother's footsteps sound up the hallway. Grandpa tosses the pistol back into the desk drawer and closes it, sending me a nervous grin.
"What are you boys doing?" Mother cries, coming into the room, her face stern and curious. She's wearing Grandmother's large red pinafore apron with pockets. She has taken off the high heels and put on worn moccasins.
"Hey, Mom," I say, and I smother a laugh in my hand.
"Oh, my god," Mother takes in the room. Her hands rise slowly and rest on her hips. "Poppa," she scolds. Grandpa's smile turns sheepish. He looks at his feet.
Mother goes and yanks one of the pinups, letting it fall to the floor. "And why haven't you kept mother's head covered?" Mom demands.
"I forgot," Grandpa shrugs. He keeps his eyes on his feet and hooks his thumbs inside his overall straps. "I don't go out there much."
"You owe her at least that," Mother's eyes blaze. "After all she's done for you."
Grandpa doesn't answer, holds his eyes on his feet and runs his thumbs up and down the inside of his straps.
Mother sighs and shakes her head. "Here I come all this way to fix dinner, clean house . . . and this room's a mess," she says.
Grandpa glances up at her and then looks back to his feet. "You don't have to clean it," he says.
"Oh, yes I do," she dismisses him with a wave of her hand, "Somebody has to." She picks up the pillow on Grandpa's bed and begins stuffing it with her fist. "It won't get cleaned if I don't," she says, becoming annoyed.
She drops the pillow on the bed and stares at Grandpa, letting a hand rise to her ear, a finger slide over to her shiner. Grandpa doesn't notice, and she lets her hand drop.
"I've got to vacuum this floor and wash these clothes," Mom says, taking in the room. "Then put down clean bed sheets."
"Umm, clean sheets," Grandpa echoes. He looks up at her, then back to his feet. "Your Momma did that for me," he says. He turns teary eyed.
Mother sighs, makes a small smile, goes by me and around the bed to Grandpa, slipping her arm through his.
"There, now," she says, brushing wood shavings from his hair. Grandpa gets choked up. They put their arms around each other. "You are too good," Grandpa says. "You are too good."
They break. Grandpa wipes his eyes, and Mother smiles.
"What happened to your face?" Grandpa says.
Mother blushes, turns shy. "Oh," she says, "it's nothing, a silly accident." She gives Grandpa a brave smile, and they hug.
They have forgotten about me. I watch them hug and think that, if they leave, I might get the pistol out of the drawer, wave it around, and aim it out of the windows. Then, for some reason, I imagine walking into the kitchen, like Little Joe Cartwright does in BONANZA when he goes into a bar, and shooting mother at the stove. Dad would throw away his cigar and come running into the house; Grandpa would come hobbling in as fast as he could from a nap on the sofa. They would brush by me into the kitchen and stand gaping over her limp body with its sweet smile on the linoleum floor. They would kneel, unsure of themselves, and afraid to touch. "Call somebody," they would cry out, before they realized that I was holding the gun. They would stare at me, then at her, and begin to gasp, wringing their hands, looking down at her body, and feeling helpless or guilty, or both. Mother would lay there with that sweet smile, in a neat puddle of blood--somehow, I think she would like that. Later, I would have to run and hide from Grandpa, Dad, and the Law all my life; keep running away, looking over my shoulder, just like the Fugitive on TV--do odd jobs and always wear a windbreaker.
Outside is dusk. I hold my Luger at ready and creep around the back yard, stepping out into the drive where Dad is smoking the stub of a Hav-A-Tampa, leaning against the dark front fender, his coat parted and his hat low over his eyes. His look seems to go through me. A squashed cigar butt is at his feet in the gravel. The chrome of the car reflects the last of the evening light.
"Hayden," Dad says with an edge in his voice, and pushes the brim of his hat up with his thumb as he looks off, "what is your mother doing?" He draws on the cigar stub and his stomach makes a long, slow growl. I look at him and pretend to smoke, too, with an imaginary cigar in my fingers.
"She's fixing dinner," I answer. "And Grandpa's cleaning up."
"I bet he is," Dad remarks with a small scowl. It's like in the evenings in our back yard at home. Dad wants to talk to me, more to himself, sneering as he smokes. He will get all worked up.
But he stops himself. He stands up off the car and turns to me.
"Did Grandpa see her face?" he studies me and the cigar stops just short of his mouth.
I nod.
"What did he say?" Dad's eyes grow wide.
"Oh, he's upset," I say.
"He is?"
"Yeah." I have Dad watching me. "He's real upset." I scowl it, like Dad would, and expect his laugh.
Dad grabs my arm, jerks me to him, making me drop my Luger. His face comes down, twisted, breathing hot and smoky into mine. "Don't get smart," he says. I stare at him and nod fast.
Dad lets go, steps back, straightens, and blinks. He pauses, takes a deep breath and then tries a grin. "Here, Hayden," he says, his voice too friendly. He digs into his pocket with his free hand, comes out with a quarter in his palm.
"Go on," he says.
I shake my head.
"Go on." He shoves it toward me and waits with a grin. His stomach makes another long growl. I pick the quarter up off his palm. "Thanks," I mumble.
I drop the quarter into my pocket, pick up my Luger and go running up the drive toward the front porch and shrubbery, keeping my back to him, my cheeks hot, my heart pounding. I blink fast to hold the tears back.
The overhead porch light comes on, and Mother comes to the screened door and peers out at the yard and the alley. "Hey, Mom," I fake cheer. She gives me a smile, disappears into the house. I wipe my eyes on my sleeves. Behind me, Dad is walking around the Buick, smoking fast. I can tell he's making a speech to himself by the small motions he makes with his hands. I get my breath and grip my Luger. I make myself search for Germans in the shrubbery. Mother comes to the screened door again and looks out. Her face breaks into a smile. I follow her look to a one-headlight car coming down the alley. I back into the shrubbery with my Luger and hide as Uncle Larry's car turns in and brakes before the porch. In the glow of the porch light, thin smoke rises from under the hood and I can see the green paint brush strokes that cover the car.
Uncle Larry waves to Mom as he cuts the one light and the engine. He's in his yellow sanitation uniform from work, but without his cap, his dirty blonde hair swept behind his ears; and Aunt Louisa is with him this time, looming large in the back seat, her big nose, her flabby arms crossed, and her long and straight dark hair loose about her shoulders. Aunt Louisa's lips are pressed into a line. She stares at Uncle Larry's back as Grandpa and Mother come out onto the porch, Grandpa cleaned up now, in an old brown suit with matching shoes and no tie; Mother smiling and wiping her hands on her apron.
Uncle Larry jumps out of the car in his work boots. He's stick thin with a small nose. He smiles broadly as he opens the back door for Aunt Louisa.
"I knew you wouldn't miss Marlene's meal," Grandpa says with a laugh. He puts his arms around the column by the porch swing and leans out toward the car, grinning and winking at Uncle Larry. Mother smiles and clasps her hands together. Aunt Louisa sits frozen in the back of the car with her arms crossed and her mouth set.
Uncle Larry smiles. "C'mon, now, Lou," Uncle Larry pleads under his breath, holding the car door open. He waves to Dad, who looks on in the almost dark, smoking from our car. "Hey, Tate," Uncle Larry says.
"Oh, c'mon Lou," Mother supports Uncle Larry from the porch in a sweet song voice. "C'mon inside and eat."
Uncle Larry makes a laugh and smiles at Mom. "C'mon, Lou," he says. He and Mother smile at each other and begin sing-saying the words, "C'mon Lou, c'mon Lou," as Grandpa leans out from the column and grins.
It goes on for about a minute, Mother from the porch and Uncle Larry holding the car door open. Aunt Louisa shuts her eyes. She finally opens them, uncrosses her arms, bows her head and offers a hand out the door to Uncle Larry. Uncle Larry and Mom stop chanting as he takes her hand in both of his, braces in the gravel with his boots and pulls. Aunt Lou's head and leg come out first. She's so big, she barely fits through the door. When she heaves out, the back of the car rises like a sigh of relief.
Mother claps, and Uncle Larry and Grandpa smile, as Aunt Lou straightens and tosses her hair over her shoulders. Aunt Lou's in a large red sweatshirt, wide tan slacks and sandals. When she turns toward Mother and Grandpa on the porch, she holds her head high, so as not to see them. Uncle Larry sweeps his fallen hair behind his ears, shuts the door and follows Aunt Lou's slow march to the porch. That's when I jump out of the shrubbery with my Luger and my meanest sneer. "Ka-pow! Ka-pow!" I shoot them.
Aunt Lou stops and snorts. Uncle Larry jumps in surprise and clutches his chest. "You got me!" he winks. He play punches my ribs and messes my hair. I grin and push my hair back and follow them up onto the porch, where Mother and Uncle Larry hug and get teary-eyed, and Aunt Louisa stands off to one side with a frown. Uncle Larry sniffs when he and Mother break. "I miss--" he says, but can't finish. Mother's smile understands. Grandpa gives Aunt Lou a smile. He and Uncle Larry hug. Mother wipes her eyes on her apron, goes and puts her arms around Aunt Lou. But Aunt Lou doesn't put her arms around Mother.
"Lou," Mother says, "I'm so glad you came."
"Like hell you are," says Aunt Lou.
"Now, Lou," Mother steps back with a smile. She gives me a look. I put my Luger in my belt and go and put my arms around Aunt Lou the best I can. Aunt Lou doesn't move.
"Well, I'm hungry," Grandpa announces with a grin.
"We're ready," Mother beams. She looks to Grandpa, then Uncle Larry. She touches her shiner.
"I noticed that," Uncle Larry says. "What happened?"
"Oh," Mother lowers her hand, "a silly accident." She makes that brave smile. "It doesn't hurt much now."
Grandpa smiles, and Uncle Larry hugs her again. "You are too sweet," Uncle Larry says. "You are just too sweet."
"Well, sweetie," Aunt Lou announces, and everyone turns to her, "your mother said I wasn't welcome in her house." Aunt Lou marches to the wooden bench swing in the corner, and turns and lowers herself into the seat. The swing creaks as it takes her, and the chains connecting it to the ceiling hum tight.
"Oh, now, Lou, she did not," Mother says.
Grandpa and Uncle Larry look on and say nothing. Aunt Lou gives Mother a mean look. She swings her loose hair over her shoulders with a jerk of her head, crosses her arms and stares off.
"Now, Lou," Mother says.
Aunt Lou doesn't answer. Uncle Larry makes a nervous laugh, looks to Mom, then to Aunt Lou.
"Oh, come on," Mother's voice fades. She sighs and shakes her head. "All right, then," she warns and gives up. She looks at Grandpa, then me.
"You give me that," Mother says, snatching the Luger out of my hand before I can protest. "We don't play at dinner." Mother drops it into her apron pocket, gives Aunt Lou a last look, puts her hands on my shoulders and steers me toward the door.
"C'mon," Mother says to the men.
Grandpa and Uncle Larry hesitate and follow us inside. Uncle Larry comes in last, catching the screened door and looking back at Aunt Lou.
"Don't worry," Grandpa says with a knowing wink and a grin. "They'll get hungry. She and Tate--they'll both get hungry."
The steady creaking of the porch swing sounds throughout the house while mother finishes setting the food on the dining table and pouring iced tea in all the glasses. The places are all set. Mother has lined the cake pan under Grandmother's head with jonquils from the garden. She has washed her hands and left her apron in the kitchen, and Uncle Larry, Grandpa and I have washed up in the bathroom. We seat ourselves at the table with Mother before Grandmother's head, which is smiling through the steam of her dishes, her bowls, her platters of food. Two chairs are empty: one by me, and one by Mother. We bow our heads with Mother to pray as Dad comes into the dining room from the back of the house. He stands waiting while she says Grace, his coat over one arm, his sleeves rolled up. When Mother says "Amen," she looks up with a closed smile.
Dad removes his hat, glances about and nods to everyone. He drops his hat and coat into a corner chair, stands and looks at Mother. His hands won't stay still. He shoves them into his trouser pockets. Grandpa shakes his head at him and grins.
"Go wash up," Mother says.
Dad nods and leaves down the hallway. We wait before Grandmother's smiling head and the steaming food. Grandpa hums softly to himself while Mother sits with a small, patient smile. Uncle Larry's eyes shift around, and Aunt Lou creaks from the porch.
Dad comes back, his face damp, his hair wet and combed. "Sorry," he mumbles, and offers a grin. He takes the chair next to me. I don't look at him as he sits down.
"I'm going to get Lou," Uncle Larry says.
"No," Mother's eyes stop him, her voice slow and stern. "She knows where to find us."
Uncle Larry makes a nervous grin and stays in his seat. He looks at Dad, then Mother. He runs his fingers over his ears.
Grandpa makes a low chuckle, and Uncle Larry gives him an annoyed look. "What's so funny?" he says.
"Nothing," Grandpa says, sadly, "I'm the one with no warm bed."
In the steady creaking from the porch, we follow Mother's lead and put our napkins into our laps, begin to pass the food, serve ourselves and eat.
"Pass the biscuits," Dad says to me. I ignore him. Uncle Larry hands him the basket of biscuits.
The food is good and everyone is hungry, except Uncle Larry. The creaking from the porch continues steady as a clock, and he begins to squirm in his seat. He only serves himself a piece of chicken and then looks down at his plate.
"I'd better go check on her," he says quickly, starting to rise from the table.
"You stay right there," Mother warns, her voice sharp like Grandmom's. She stares Uncle Larry down over Grandmother's head, pausing to serve herself lima beans.
Uncle Larry makes a quiet laugh and sits down. He looks at everyone, then at Grandmother's head, and hesitates as he takes the mashed potatoes and serves himself. Grandpa watches him with a sad, bemused look as he picks up his iced tea and sips.
"Will you pass the butter?" Dad says to me. I pretend not to hear him and keep looking away.
Dad waits. "Did you hear me?" he says. I don't move. Grandpa passes him the butter.
We're quiet while we eat. The creaking continues. Uncle Larry stares down at his plate and sighs. "I'd better go," he says.
A forkful of black eyed peas stops halfway to Mother's mouth. "Larry," she warns.
Uncle Larry doesn't look at her; he rises, drops his napkin on the table and leaves toward the porch.
Mother stares after him, lowering her fork, and Grandpa makes a sad chuckle. Grandpa, Dad and I keep eating, our eyes down. The front screened door whines and slams shut.
"Go get him," Mother says.
Dad looks up from his plate at Grandpa, Mother, and then me. I look away.
"Which one of us?" he says.



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