We think boys are rude, insensitive animals but it is not
so in all cases. Each boy has one or two sensitive spots, and if you can find
out where they are located you have only to touch them and you can scorch him
as with fire.
My grandmother is in hell-at least, that’s what they tell me. My great-grandfather, Elmer Weaver, was a Primitive Baptist and an illiterate man, and the creators of “Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd” must have met him because he looked, dressed and sounded almost exactly like Elmer Fudd-Elmer Fudd just spoke a little clearer. When my grandmother, Latrel, was fourteen, my great-grandparents, Elmer and Julia, sold my grandmother for five hundred dollars and a fifty-acre pig farm. Douglas, the man who bought my grandmother, was twenty-nine, and he was relatively wealthy, married with children. He left his family to marry and live with my grandmother, and together they had two children: my mother, Penny, and her sister, Gail. When my mother was six, Douglas died of lung cancer, leaving Latrel a single mother with two children.
Of course, I never knew Douglas, but once when working at a church, servicing their water well, the secretary and treasurer of the church asked me who I was related to because I reminded her of someone. As I told her, she asked, “So, wasn’t Douglas Barfield some kin of yorne? Your eyes strike me as his.” I replied that he was, and she informed me, “I knew him. He was once a mighty servant of the Lord - too bad he’s in hell.”
Douglas’s family fought with my grandmother over the estate and tried to take the children. Latrel gave everything up to keep the children. Over the course of her life Latrel married many times; we are not sure how many times. She was an extraordinary woman, a beautiful redhead, cussed with the proficiency of a well-practiced construction worker, drank like a marine, smoked three packs of unfiltered Pal-Malls a day; she was my favorite person. I spent three summers with Latrel, including her last.
To this day I believe she had only the best of intentions. She had, after all, told me not to go into the woods, not because it was something we didn’t do everyday, but because she knew the bb-gun-wars we had would eventually get someone’s, probably my own, eye put out. The oak trees’ canopy kept the rest of the world out, and for a few moments my cousins and I were in a jungle, hunting down the enemy-each other. I always won, not because I was the best shot, the fastest, the sneakiest, or even the meanest. I won because I was at home, wherever I was, and the oak trees, with their moss hanging to the leaf-covered ground, filtered away unneeded light until all that was left was the bare essentials of the necessary. Later that evening I began to itch, an itch that burned, an itch that tortured, an itch that couldn’t be hidden, and I knew the sad truth: chiggers.
Chiggers burrow into the softest, most tender places of the body, and on a little boy, the softest, the most tender place, is the balls. I scratched despite my grandmother’s much repeated “If you keep on a’scratchin’, it’ll only get worse,” because scratching was all I had, and if only for that one instant of gratification I believed that some relief was possible, then scratch I would, and did, until my balls were a flaming, quivering, suffering clump of slightly bleeding flesh. She tried everything to make it quit, starting with Campho-Phenique, that cure-all remedy made primarily of turpentine by which all grandmothers in the South have always sworn. Of course, it sounds sadistic for her to smear turpentine on my balls, but she smeared it with all the loving attention and compassion of a grandmother, and for a few moments the burning made me forget the itching, and I hopped around like an African voodoo priest dancing around a fire possessed by his ancestors, expounding the wisdom of generations, the chthonic power of Nature pulsing through his veins inextricably connecting him to the divine, his temples pounding with nothing but the pure truth of that particular moment.
The pure truth of my particular moment was that the itching soon returned, and the burning which had been there for what seemed forever was now even worse. She eventually tried iodine, alcohol, and some kind of spray-on useless bit of marketing genius that at least momentarily froze my balls, giving me the strange sensation of itching, flaming, freezing balls all at once; at least it was a change, if not for the better, I at least had some other sensation to consider which took my mind off the primary problem: no matter what remedy she pulled out of the medicine cabinet, I was in pain, and the pain refused to submit to her loving torture of my balls.
I howled, my yawp pushing out the simulated wood paneling of the blue and white mobile home, and then she suggested it. How she thought of it, what made it come to her mind, would have stumped Freud himself, but she had, nevertheless, thought of it: if chiggers were alive, then chiggers had to breathe; therefore, she reasoned, we should smother them-“them” being the chiggers, not my balls. To smother them she needed something that would insure that no matter what, they could not breathe, and this made her think, I suppose that’s what it was, of fingernail polish. It was pink.
She kept painting my balls, no matter how I screamed, cried, and trembled because the only remedy she could think of happened to be more painful than the actual invasion of the parasites. From the first scorching stroke of that fragile fingernail polish brush to the last dabbed dollop sealing my seething balls, trapping the chiggers inside to burrow farther in, searching for that one breath that would allow them to irritate my already annihilated balls even more, she cupped my balls, whispering that it would quit hurting soon, that she loved me, over and over, “oh, baby, Granny’s so sorry. Granny loves you, your Granny loves you.” Somehow I knew that was true, and I can still see her arthritic, reddened, cracked, and swollen hands holding that brush and my balls with the love only a grandmother has. It didn’t matter to her how much I screamed and fussed, that people a mile away would think she was abusing me, that my flapping arms pummeled her aching shoulders while she tried anything and everything to make it better.
The dancing pigs started it. I stood bow-legged on the kitchen table chair, my pink painted balls eye-level to my grandmother’s loving stare as she fanned them with a faded Jesus “The Good Shepherd” church fan, so necessary in South Georgia before the advent of central air, her un-filtered Pall Mall cigarette hanging from her mouth. She liked simple things: vegetable gardens, bronze doorstops shaped like frogs, granite ashtrays with “Viet-Nam” painted on them, grits with red-eye gravy, hominy, and the Southern staple for culture, Hee Haw; Hee Haw’s dancing pigs were my grandmother’s favorite part of her favorite television show. As they pranced across the screen, kicking like Vegas can-can girls, we burst into paroxysms of laughter.
“Ain’t we a sight?” she screeched, barely managing to ejaculate those words through her convulsing laughter, coughing and hacking with emphysema, her unfiltered Pal-Mal hanging from her lips.
“Why, if they put us on t.v., we would be the funniest thing they ever did see, funnier than them damn pigs. Hell, it’d probably make us rich.” Our laughter joined us as we howled in waves, convulsing with the purest relief, the pain and pleasure of our laughter pushing away the misery of my pink, painted balls.
I had just returned home from summer vacation the day my grandmother died; she had just learned her husband had been seeing another woman. My grandmother drove into the driveway, a steep incline well over one-hundred yards long. Her husband, my “Uncle Jackie,” was working in the garden at the bottom of the driveway. My grandmother took out a gun, shot herself in the chest, aimed the car at my “uncle,” put the car in drive and attempted to run over him. Like most of her life, she missed.
So she took her own life, and they tell me that means she’s in hell. When I look around the world and see what I see, I don’t believe it; I mean, I think this is all we need of hell.