Don't You Tell Me a Love Story

By  |  March 10, 2013

They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. It may be more accurate to say that it is full of people who are very, very tired. At least this was my childhood experience in Tennessee and Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant. After a full day of killing and fornicating, it was only natural that everyone grew weary. So we sat around. Some would sit and nap, others would sit and drink. Frequently, there was drinking and then napping. The pious would read their Bibles, while their children would find a shady spot to know one another biblically, or perhaps give birth to a child from a previous knowing. Eventually, though, all the sitting led to talking, which supposedly led to all the stories, or at least the beginnings of stories.

In my family, we were unable to finish any.

Most of our stories were told at the dinner table, after the meal, by my father and his father, known to his peers as Monk. These men, to whom I am deeply grateful for giving me life and a name and any remnant of virility that might linger in my fragile and bookish bones, could not get to the end of a story if you gave them a map and lined the path with hushpuppies and cake. In their storytelling, they went back and forth, like Vladimir and Estragon, as in a slow and maddening game of interrogatory squash played by men with no arms.

"Well," Monk says, from one end of the table.

"Well," my father says, from the other end.

This is how all their stories begin.

"You ever speak to old Lamar Bibbs?"

"Not since him and Gola Mae went down yonder after that thing up at the place."

The younger me perks up, eager to hear some gothic tale drawn from the sepia mists of Mississippi Hill Country lore. Perhaps a story about a mule trampling a baby, or the time when everyone got the yellow fever and died. How exciting!

But all is quiet. Monk is leaning over and staring at his folded hands, as though he is praying or has been bludgeoned with a skillet, while Pop is studying his dentures, which he holds in his palm like a small, wounded vole. He places them back into his mouth, having divested them of any lingering corn. I consider asking a question, such as, "What sort of thing happened to Mr. and Mrs. Bibbs, and was it a very bad thing?"

We are in Coldwater, Mississippi. Ronald Reagan has been elected president, spacecraft are shuttling in the space over our heads, and the homes of so many American children are filled with Atari consoles. But here in Coldwater it might as well be 1850.

"Whatever happened to old Billy Bridgewater?" Pop says.

"Pulled a tumor out his head."

"Out his head?"

"Cracked him open like they might would a coconut."

"Seem like it would change a man."

"He got to cussin’ awful bad is how they knew."

"At his wife?"

"At everybody. In church, even."

"Was it him got his ear chewed up over in Hernando?"

"Naw, that was a fellow name a Gentry."

"Jim Gentry?"


"Luther Hines, you mean."


"Old Luther Grassley!"

"He's the one got him a dog looks like a wolf."

"And the one ear."

I am eager for them to finish the story about whatever bad thing happened to Lamar and Gola Mae Bibbs, or perhaps explain how Mr. Grassley lost his ear and how that affected his ability to wear eyeglasses or find happiness. Really, I just want to hear any story that doesn’t compel me to wonder if these people are really my people, or if they found me in the back of a dead gypsy's wagon.

"Papa fought in the Spanish-American War," Monk says, looking down at the brass zipper of his coveralls.

Finally, a story about our family!

"And did he kill any Spaniards?" I ask, my eyes widening like biscuits on television. I’m eager to hear how my father's father's father climbed San Juan Hill to impale some gallant Basque rogue with a bayonet glinting in the hot Cuban sun alongside General Calixto Garcia. Did he get wounded? Did he slink into Havana under the alias Diego Enchilada and take up with a mulatto woman and make a Cuban baby that he remained in contact with for the rest of his days by sending letters downriver to New Orleans and eventually paying for the child's first trumpet?

"Shit, son, I don't know," says Monk. "He got tired and stole him a horse and come home."

It doesn’t bother me that one cannot actually ride a horse from Cuba to Mississippi, unless that horse is either magical or inflatable; what bothers me is that the story offers so little information. Perhaps they were trying to protect me from the truth, that our family was born in dishonor and wickedness, rife with ancient malefactors, Chekhovian job-lots, conmen, Marxists, crooked preachers, barn burners, possibly a union boss from the fiendish land of Cleveland.

Or worse, that our family was uninteresting.

Despite our residence in Tennessee, Pop insisted we play baseball across the state line, in Mississippi, where the game retained its purer, more barbaric qualities and the outfields were ornamented with bovine excrement. My rural teammates had fascinating lives. Many of them lived in trailers and other sorts of homes that could be rolled down a hill, which had a real sense of adventure to it, while others had metal teeth and chewed tobacco. Here we were, barely eight years old, and one of them was already an uncle, while another teammate came to practice one day carrying a giant dirty baby.

"I wish I had a little sister," I said.

"Shoot, this here's my aunt," he said, carrying her like a sack of Ol' Roy dog food.

I was sure such family arrangements must violate some important commandment—or at the very least demonstrated what sorts of accidents can happen in homes capable of interstate travel. Still, those boys had interesting families, with what I imagined to be shirtless parolees and tattooed cousins in bikinis and knife fights around the dinner table. Why couldn't I have a family like that?

I secretly hoped my people were hiding something, some story that would illuminate the dark underneaths of our beds. But my parents were not even divorced. Pop was a devoted father, a large and powerful man who showered us with guns and love. He did not drink or hit our mother, his only luxury the occasional heart attack. And mother was a saint, a gentle schoolteacher who believed in the inherent goodness of all creatures, unimpeachable in her love for others, a woman who seemed certain that the source of all human pain was merely a misunderstanding or an accident, never intentional, and whose greatest sin was smoking cigarettes in the bathtub.

Of course, even in our serene, sidewalked neighborhood, there was trouble, families who were dismembered and flailing. I had seen under those families' beds, had found all sorts of secrets, mostly in the form of magazines filled with naked women. These women had breasts the size and shape of experimental weather balloons, and looking at them made my pants hurt. Perhaps my own parents hid things under their bed, too?

One day, I ran home, reached my arm into the dark horizontal crevasse, and felt something: a secret magazine! But when I pulled it out, my fears were not allayed. For there in my hands curled the glossy evidence of dark family secrets: My father, apparently, had sexual feelings for largemouth bass.

Here's what I knew about my family:

Our people were originally from somewhere between Scotland and the Holy Land.

They were poor and downtrodden and forced to eat their children. They sold their uneaten children onto a boat that debarked somewhere between Boston and Charleston, so that those children could learn to be poor and downtrodden in a whole different place.

Eventually, these children fled the Atlantic Seaboard for the fertile lands between Memphis and New Orleans, where they were promised the opportunity to starve to death under a democratic government. In time, some took to preaching, others to cattle, and they entertained themselves on Saturday nights by hitting one another with a razor strop until it was time for church.

With hard work, my grandfather obtained a cow and sold its milk. When the teat ran dry, he trapped mink, which he took to Memphis to trade with the Jews.

My mother had once been married to a man named Gene.

My father had once been married to a teenager.

Who was a hussy, they said.

There was quite possibly a gun involved, the first gun I would ever shoot, a .410.

Had the gun been stolen? Won in a duel? Or had I made this up?

Dreamt it?

Hoping it would be true?

And who was Gene?

"Gene is gone," Mom said.

"Tell me about the hussy," I said.

"There's nothing to know."

Perhaps Gene and the hussy were part of the same story?

"At least tell me what the Jew people looked like," I said to my grandfather. I assumed they looked like everybody in Fiddler on the Roof, with prayer shawls and the curly fries attached to their heads.

"The Jews?" Monk said.

"Yes, the minks and the Jews. Tell me a Jew story."

But he would not.

I wanted to know so much, about the past and the hussy and Gene and the history that seemed to hold secrets of lust and calamity, but whom could I ask? Monk was only interested in stories that took place before the discovery of penicillin, and Pop was too busy with his demanding coronary condition. Mother was the obvious one, but she seemed too fragile.

Best to wait.

I needed evidence, a line of questioning to pursue. In our family, if you asked for a story, what you were asking for was a lie. Because that's what stories were, by definition.

"Don't you tell me a story," Grandmother would say upon asking one of us if we had done a terrible thing. She said the word story as my father did, the first syllable rhyming with low or row or no.


"I seen you take a biscuit," she would say.

"No, ma'am," I would say, dropping the greasy puck into a back pocket. She was a good-hearted woman, but she believed that eating between meals led to terrible things like miscegenation and homosexuality and the use of microwave ovens.

"What would Jesus do if he thought you was telling me a story?" she’d say.

What I thought was, Jesus would like me to have a biscuit, because he loved me and did not want me to suffer. Eventually, though, I would surrender and hand over the delicious treat, covered in fuzz, and go outside for a switching.

"This is what happens when you tell me a story," she’d say, peeling a thin, leafy shaft from the hedge and denuding it (and me). From a very young age, I learned that stories were bad things, never true, and that if you told them, somebody would start hitting you with the shrubs.

When I was nine, we left the concrete patios of Memphis for the soil of Mississippi, where I expected to get closer to some meaningful truth about my people.

In my new home, I watched a many-pointed buck swim across a river, perhaps the most startlingly beautiful scene I have ever witnessed—and then I watched my cousin steer his boat so he could stab the beast in the neck with a knife. It would not have been my first inclination to engage the creature in such brutal gang warfare, but then, I assumed that this was what you did in Mississippi, perhaps because there were so few shopping malls. I also watched my father beat a pair of large rats to death with a claw hammer and then throw their newborn babies, still blind and hairless, into a garbage fire in the yard. This sort of thing never happened in Memphis, where small animals, when found by children, are generally given names and a dish of water. I had always wanted pets, and there they were, on fire.

More upsetting, though, was my new school, where there was a boy in sixth grade old enough to have been drafted.

"He's just real bad at math," a classmate said.

The same boy, I was told, had made love to a horse. Nobody in Memphis would ever make love to a horse. Yet, as the wilds of this glorious new home were illuminated for me, my family's stories remained as opaque as pond water, as mysterious as horse-love.

"Our family is boring," I said to my older brother Bird one cold workday, burning more garbage.

"Boring, hell," Bird said. "Fucked up is what it is."

He had a look on his face that suggested he knew things I did not. I pressed him, but he said nothing. Later, while scavenging for clean socks in his room, I came across a scrapbook, mostly chronicling Bird’s early attempts at art and athletics, but with something else, too: a very old news clipping about an agent of Mississippi's Alcohol and Beverage Control dying in an automobile accident. The date was August 1977. The agent's name was Gene.

Here's what I knew:

Gene was Bird's biological father.

Gene had died, tragically, suddenly, leaving mother and Bird. Then mother, bereft of a husband and someone to cook for, had married my father, a union that eventually produced me.

But the date on the article was 1977.

And I was born in 1975.

So Gene died when I was two?


And odder still was that when he'd died, Gene had been married to a woman named Faye. Which was strange, because that was my father's sister's name. My aunt. Aunt Faye.

What did it all mean?

Had Gene really divorced my sweet mother and married my sweet Aunt Faye, the sisters-in-law who seemed to get along famously, smoking cigarettes out back after Sunday dinner? And why had my father married his new brother-in-law's ex-wife? And wasn't it wrong to have a cousin who was also your stepsister and an aunt who was also your stepmother, as Bird must have had? I needed help figuring it out—maybe a compass, some graph paper, a eugenicist. I had enough knowledge of human biology to know that such rambunctious behavior could lead to birth defects, or at least a great deal of confusion at family dinners.

I confronted Mom with Exhibit A, the article.

"Tell me about Gene," I said. "And why he was married to Aunt Faye."

She said nothing, but took a great deal of time to fold her dishrag into a pleasant, limp quadrangle over the edge of the sink she'd just emptied.

"Why do you want to know?" she said.

"Do I have all my chromosomes?"

"Good Lord," she said.

Something happened in that moment. The woman, Our Mother of Perpetual Hope, she of the perennial smile and the everlasting faith and the lovely cloud of permed hair that could have snared a passing brace of mallards, crumbled like a biscuit in a boy's back pocket.

"fruit tree", 17"x11", mixed media, February 2013, Katherine Sandoz

She told me everything, or most everything. How she and Gene had lived next door to Aunt Faye in the small town near Monk's farm, the latter a widow herself by that time, with two children who would eventually be my older cousins. How Faye had invited my not-yet mother and Gene and little Baby Bird for Fourth of July down at Monk's farm. How Mom had met Pop there, him with a precious little kindergartenish daughter and married to a whole other woman who was always napping in some other room. How Pop and Gene had quickly become hunting buddies and enjoyed killing things together, even time. How Gene had left mother and Baby Bird, just up and disappeared, then reappeared, with the neighbor, Faye.

And how Mom left town, putting herself and her boy away quietly in shame, and how Gene's old hunting buddy, this garrulous talker with the giant head, had shown up on her doorstep with a hanging-clothes bag over his shoulder and a burning fire in his heart.

"Go away," Mom had said.

"I've come for you," he said.

"You're married," she said.

"Not no more," he said, the napper having walked out for a quieter bed.

And so mother and father were married, and Gene and Faye were married, and mother and her former husband were once again in the same family, married to a brother and a sister, and it was unclear how this would ever be normal and who should bring the coconut cake on Christmas.

It was around this time, I believe, that mother took to locking herself in bathrooms with cartons of Winston Lights.

And then I was born, making the whole situation terminally irreversible, son of a son of a son, to carry on the family name, with what was said to be a giant head, like the fruit of a gourd, like my father's before me.

I learned all this at the age of twelve, that my older brother, really a half-brother, had once been my step-cousin, if such a thing even exists, and that my mother and aunt had been married to the same man.

Finally, I had my story, but how could I share it with classmates, who might use it as an opportunity to stone me? I wanted to unhear the story, to go back and not see the clipping. Bird was right. Fucked up is what it was.

"Tell us a story!" my oldest daughter, six, asks. She and her sisters are on the top bunk, where my enormous boulder of a head rises like a moon over the horizon of their bedclothes. It is a new bed, a new city, a new century.

"A story?" I say.

"One from when you were little, like us!"

I have told many stories since leaving Mississippi, told them at comedy clubs and in theaters and on Greyhound buses and inside Waffle Houses bathed in oleo and yellow light, where I deployed pink and blue packets of artificial sweetener as visual aids. I would write the characters’ names on the packets, Gene and Bird and Faye and mother and father and the names of cousins who were sisters and brothers in what had come to seem, in the intervening years, a sort of Old Testament farce.

My family’s story is sad, and funny, and ours.

"What kind of story do you want?" I ask my daughters, in their nightgowns.

There are so many to tell, and to finish. The farmhouse in Coldwater is empty, Monk and Grandmother dead and buried on the side of the greenest hill I've ever had the pleasure of crying on, and Faye is dead, too, and Gene, of course, buried in a double plot that will be forever single, as Faye married again and is buried elsewhere. And Ronald Reagan is in the earth, too, and the shuttles are forever grounded, and Atari, gone.

"Tell us a Mississippi story!" says one of my children.

We live in Savannah now, a city with sidewalks and art galleries and things to do besides kill and fornicate, and the South is dying, maybe dead, driven from the earth by progress and the demand for affordable chinos. Nobody is ever bored anymore, and Mississippi is a terra incognita to my children, a place at the far end of the map where dragons be.

I look into their eyes and remember wanting to hear, to know, so desperately. Are they old enough to hear the story of our family?

"Hurry it up in there," my wife says from the laundry. It's bedtime.

"Tell us a story about when you killed some deers!" they say.

Should I tell them a hunting story, or the story of how their grandfather killed a rat with a hammer, or how their great-great-great grandfather was a horse thief, or about the boy who had a burning horse-love in his heart, or how I came to be a part of this world, fathered through what seems like sin and defilement but is really just the human heart behaving as it will, when set loose?

"Well," I say.

And they lean forward.

This is how all my stories begin.

Harrison Scott Key is a contributing editor at Oxford American. His writing has been featured in The Best American Travel Writing, the New York Times, and Outside. His first memoir, The World’s Largest Man won the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and his second, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, was released on November 6. Watch the trailer for his new book here.