“She scared me cuz she had hit the bottom more than I had,” Janet Duncan alleged, a statement that caught my attention, coming from the woman I knew took shots of kerosene to cure ailments.
She stood one foot hooked over the other, arm propping her up against the porch of the wooden framed cabin, Bud Light Lime in her right hand, as it was what she was offered, though I had the feeling it wasn’t her preference. Her pants hung heavy besides being belted at the waist, baggier than those of Bobby, the man she arrived with. Her salt and pepper hair was chopped even shorter, and her grey shirt stenciled the proud claim “this is the shirt I wear when I don’t care.”
She looked out over the valley as she spoke and commented briefly on the view from up here, pointing out Tiger Mountain, the direction of her home not two miles due east, and the supposed hilarity of the projected 50% chance of rain – I didn’t laugh. The two deliberate over when the strip club in town will close, arguing that no place like that should stand as long as it has when they have trouble attracting women with as many teeth as the menial amount of money they make.
I’m not sure when the conversation shifted, but the next time I tuned in Bobby was rambling on about his older sister having been found in the woods after a bad bout of shooting up dope. She was 35 years old, a registered nurse named Susan. Hurt her back on the job, got runnin’ with the wrong crowd, just didn’t show up one day 15 months later. Mom asks if she had a proper burial, and he tilts his head at first, then croaks out that they had found less than a third of her, bone wise, but never answered the question. No one ever solved the case, and the county didn’t make much of an effort to, but Bobby suspects it was foul play. “Too many snakes in the law enforcement grass around here,” he concludes.
He drinks a diet coke, but I don’t ask why, and his watch beeps on the half hour, to remind him of what I won’t inquire. Born and raised, right here in Northern Georgia, left the town for 5 days once to go to Alaska, looked for work and turned around.
He’s 37, 38 years old by the sounds of it, having graduated 20 years ago, assuming it wasn’t from college. With closed eyes I would imagine he was much older, the naivety reflected in this youthful face throwing my blind perception of a façade better suited for the rasp in his vocals, accented with a twang that seems aged by the stories that he’s endured.
Janet cracks open her flip phone with a screen big enough to show us a mug shot of her 20-something year old cousin, face covered with scabs indisputably from whatever arrangement of drugs she had whipped up for injection. She had just gotten out of a 3 months stint in jail. I didn’t see the resemblance, and wouldn’t flaunt it as heartedly as Janet did, but she claims everyone says they look just alike, unaware of the implications. She’s got Hep C now, “flesh eating disease from the inside out” she rewards, as if it were a trophy. “Everything is kinda sorta drug related around here.”
As if the reality of these sorrowful situations themselves weren’t enough to leave me drowning in their wake, another string of stories arose staring Aunt Frasier. She was as big around as she was tall, though they weren’t a physically large bunch, but she had 19 kids, 19! Her kids kept having kids, and by the time she passed there were six generations of them, six!
In comparison, Bobby was merely one of ten. Three older sisters, five older brothers, one baby that died 3 hours in, gender unidentified, and about 3 or 4 miscarriages, he lost count.
In her accent too thick to decipher if she was lamenting or conceiting, Janet narrates “when I was sixteen I was bootlegging white liquor around here, strapped around my hips. Then I was hustling Rolex watches, made 300 bucks right quick,” as she snaps her fingers.
Said her track record was hotter than a pistol by the time her boyfriend Mike proposed. “He had asked me that morning if I would marry him; come night I was out dancing at what was the Frontier Lounge back then – they burned my house down with him in it.” No pause.
“I don’t why nobody wants to kill nobody else, you gotta be crazy, but I’m a crazy one too – I’ve been stabbed in the leg, but I’m not going down like that. You cut me, I’m gonna cut you back. I done shot at two husbands since then. One would throw full cans of beer at my back. He got to throwin’ plates when I had the little one in the bassinet, and when one landed inside of it, ‘bout to cut my little one’s head right off, I said that was it – drank my coffee the next morning and took off.
I found a man on his way to Pennsylvania and asked him to take me with him.
Eventually Mama begged ‘please come back, it’ll be different,’ so I came back.
I keep trying to get out of here, but I just keep comin’ back,” she trails, talking to no one in particular.
She goes on to articulate the next woman he was with. “…beat her until her eyeballs came out of her dang sockets, then dated my cousin.”
From the gallery – “Is she dead yet?”
“No, but they got her eyeballs back in.”
“I needed protection, so I married the next fellow there was. I made it clear that this wasn’t love, it was a business arrangement. We agreed on 12 years, and he left me exactly when that 12 years was done.” She gesticulates filling out paper work.
“Sons are 21 and 30 now. Wasn’t easy, but I got it done. At least I was better off than my sister who come to me askin’ how to have a baby. I said ‘are you serious? Well, everything they told you, do it backwards.’”
Side conversation continues with Bobby, as we touch fingertips grabbing for the same chip in the environmentally misplaced pineapple shaped bowl. I’m too distracted straining to decode Janet’s anecdotes and double hummus dip my chip, piling it with an uncomfortable chickpea mound I have to swallow, but carry on lending one ear to each exchange, intrigued by the gentleman’s parables as well.
Small talking about the Chatooga River and the white water rafting I signed up for on Friday he relates “I never gone white water rafting, but I got three friends who done drowned on that river.” Surprised, as I was familiar with its rapids from years of trekking up to Northern Georgia, I asked how, and the first two stories made sense, tubing and so on, but the third was of a fellow who just got too drunk and fell right in.
Janet chimes in when she hears I drove up from Florida and recounts a stint she had as a waitress inland. Never having served before she had walked right up to the owner and suggested “let me work a week, see if you like me, and if not, send me on my way. She paid me $20 on the first night, and I kept comin’ back. It was in a town just north of that place Orlando. They were sellin’ liquor bottles right out of the drive through window. I had a nice place right there in the trailer park.”
Gaping at the unexpected exchange recited in the last 20 minutes, I chuckled at the veracity to her final proclamation as she tilted the last bit of beer down her throat, “I just have to cross one bridge at a time.“