SIX LITTLE SCARS
INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS
Rough River Publishing LLC
ROUGH RIVER PUBLISHING LLC
PO BOX 58844
LOUISVILLE, KY 40268
Copyright © 2014 Ron Gambrell
All rights reserved.
To the woman whose quiet strength inspired this novel...
“We all have scars. Some are more visible than others.”
Six Little Scars
Louisville, KY 2007
Sometimes confessions come too late. Sometimes they don’t come at all. I always knew my father to be an honorable man, born in the Church, baptized. So in the end, what choice did he have but to bare his scars?
A year ago Thanksgiving Day, Father and I sat watching Miami and Detroit play football. It broke my heart to see him that way, sick and dying, nothing but skin and bones. I could tell he was in pain; the grunts, periodic shakes, and the way his arms and shoulders kept drawing up.
“Matthew,” he spoke with a rasp in his voice, “I’ve been writing ... things about the past. Things you should know.” Reading my puzzled look, he held his hand up. “Don’t ask ... questions,” he ordered, struggling through each word. “Just look under my desk.... There’s a cardboard box. Take it home and read what’s in it, tonight, and then burn it all.”
“No one else should read it ... and that includes your mother.”
I leaned back, wondering what he could have written that only I should read.
“Tonight, Son.... Promise you’ll do as I ask.”
Father barely made it through dinner. He sat crumpled like old folks I’d seen in a nursing home. While the rest of us shared turkey, dressing, and the usual holiday fixings, he ate nothing.
“Daddy, shouldn’t you try to eat?” asked my sister, Christine.
Father shook his head. If he said two words throughout the meal, I don’t recall them. But he did listen, and I could see in his bloodshot eyes that he cherished those moments, observing his loved ones together as a family. After a while his weak frame slipped in the chair. I stepped to his side and said, “Come on, Dad. Let me take you back to the couch.”
“Take me to my bed,” he spoke quietly.
I gathered him into my arms and started down the hallway. While stepping sideways, I said, “Remember how you used to carry me, holding me up with my arms spread wide like I was flying?”
Father’s breathing shortened. He buried his wet face into my shoulder. I tried to hold my own tears back but couldn’t. After gently lowering him onto the bed, I slid in and held him the way he used to hold me when I was ill or frightened by a nightmare. I remained there until the tension in his shoulders subsided and I knew he was asleep.
Later that night, at home, I waited to read until my wife, Lori—four months pregnant—went to sleep. After fixing a highball, I relaxed in my favorite living room chair. The old box was familiar. Father’s pointed-toe western boots came in it. Removing the lid, I found yellow writing tablets—hundreds of handwritten pages. Jesus, Dad, how long you been writing? Surely you don’t expect me to read all this in one night?
By the end of the first page, I was hooked. Whiskey became coffee as I read into the morning. How could the gentle man who raised me do the things he described? So much detail, so many seemingly insignificant events that all made better sense by the time I finished. Father didn’t just tell his story; he relived it.
Sunrise peeked through the living room window as I finished. Confused and bewildered, I leaned back in the recliner, closed my weary eyes to think, and dozed off. An hour had passed, but it seemed only seconds later when Lori shook me. “Wake up, Matthew. Your mother just called.”
“What?” I said, trying to focus.
“We need to go over there right away. It’s your father.”
As Lori spoke, I remembered the box on the floor next to my chair, out of her sight.
“Why didn’t you come to bed?” she continued. “What have you been doing all night?”
“Nothing. Don’t you have to work?”
“I’m off today. Remember ... Friday after Thanksgiving?”
Sleepy and without a shower, I leaned against the truck’s passenger side window, hugging a microwave-warmed, stale cup of last night’s coffee. Lori ran stop signs and caution lights in route to my parent’s house. There, we found Father exactly as I’d left him the night before: in his bed. The bed where he and Mother slept practically every night of my life. The bed where he, Christine, and I watched cartoons on that same antiquated 19” television still perched in the corner.
Father’s sister, Aunt Sissy, had already arrived and was leaning over whispering to him. She backed away upon noticing us. Father seemed irritated, but then settled down. It nauseated me to see him lying there, mouth hanging open, breathing loudly. Mother sat on the edge of the bed holding his hand. The past six months had taken a toll on her. Normally thin, she’d lost weight and looked exhausted to the point of slumping. Her high cheek bones were protruding, and her eyes had sunk back. I stepped to her, nodded toward Aunt Sissy, and asked, “What was that all about?”
“It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
Aunt Sissy backed up against the wall. Her eyes were red as if she’d been crying. She chewed her nails while watching the hospice nurse adjust a morphine drip. I always knew Aunt Sissy had issues, but never understood why until after reading Father’s story. Standing there in a sweat suit, still slim and fit, she suddenly reminded me of a 52-year-old version of Hilary Swank in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” She caught me staring at her covered arms, and tilted her head as if thinking, What the hell?
Lori joined me and asked, “So how is he?”
The nurse leaned our way and quietly said, “His suffering is about over. Should have been on morphine long before now.”
“So,” I asked, “why wasn’t he?”
“His choice,” answered Mother. “Didn’t wanna be all drugged up when you kids came for Thanksgiving.”
Christine arrived looking equally rough; her sleepy, green eyes swollen behind uncombed strands of freshly blonde hair. We hugged, and I asked, “Where’s Henry?”
“Already left for work,” she replied. “I can call him.”
“Well, do it now if you’re going to.” I turned to Mother. “Did you call Dad’s elders?”
She squinted at my comment and said, “Yes Matthew, they’re supposed to be on the way.”
Father’s eyes followed me. I kissed his forehead, and then whispered into his ear, “I read your story.”
He nodded weakly and seemed desperate to speak, mouthing words with no sound. I tried to read his lips but could not. When I leaned in closer, he managed a grip on my shirt, pulling me closer, and I could barely make out the words, “promise ... the ... promise...”
Assuming he spoke of my promise to burn his tablets, I said, “Don’t worry, I will.”
Within half an hour, most of the family had arrived. Lori sat in the living room with some of my aunts. Christine put her arm around my waist as our daddy suffered his final moments. Mother’s long hair shrouded his face while she shared his moans and groans. Grandpa and Grandma Smith knelt next to the bed. Aunt Sissy had her face buried into Uncle Ray’s chest. Grandpa’s brothers—the elders—huddled near the doorway. Never before had I seen so many grown men cry. Finally, Father’s breathing slowed, his whole body relaxed, and I could hear Mother whimpering. She pulled her hair away, and then gently kissed Father’s forehead. His lips remained open. His suffering had ended. Cancer took him at the young age of 50.
Father’s funeral took place on Monday, November 27, 2006. Though he lived in Louisville, at his request, we buried him in the company of his ancestors at a place called Bear Creek, in rural Grayson County, Kentucky. Before leaving the graveyard, Mother said she would be coming by the next morning to talk about something. I figured she had concerns over what to do with Father’s tools, guns, fishing equipment, etc. Things she would have no use for.
When I answered the door, Mother looked as tired and distraught as she had the day before. “You alone?” she asked, while walking in.
I yawned and said, “Yeah. Lori’s already at work. You want coffee?”
“I hoped you’d have a pot ... and an ashtray.”
“No one smokes here, but for you, Mom, I do have an ashtray.”
As I poured two cups, strong, the way she likes it, Mother lit a cigarette.
“So what’s on your mind?” I asked. “You look worried.”
“The other day, at the house, before your daddy passed, you used a word I’ve never heard out of you.”
“Not once have I ever heard you refer to your grandpa and your great uncles as the elders.”
While spooning sugar into my coffee, I said, “And?”
“And! Your daddy spent the last months of his life writing ... things not just anyone should read. Now I can’t find it anywhere.”
“Maybe he didn’t want you to find it.”
“Don’t play games with me. Know damn well you have it.”
I hesitated. “He gave it to me Thanksgiving Day. Told me to read it and then burn it.”
“So did you?”
“Did I read it? Sure I did.”
“Shit, Matthew. Did you burn it?”
“Not yet, but I will ... and by the way, how’d you know what’s in it?”
After a sip of her coffee, she said, “I read parts of it while he slept.”
“Did you read enough to know you weren’t supposed to be reading it?”
“Read enough to know no one should be readin’ it.”
“I can’t believe you read it without his permission!”
“Matthew Lee, don’t talk to me like I’m a child. I took care of your daddy night and day. All he did was sit around scribblin’ page after page. About drove me crazy. Think I didn’t have a right to know?”
For a moment, she sat silent, a distant look in her eyes. Then, after a deep draw from her cigarette, she exhaled and spoke through the smoke. “So, when are you gonna destroy it?”
“I don’t know. Won’t be easy. It’ll be like cremating a part of Dad that I never knew.”
Mother smashed her cigarette in the ashtray, stood, and said, “If you wallow in the past, it’ll haunt you.”
Months passed, and when the sleepless nights came, I began to think my mother might be right. I understood why my father told me to burn his story. What I couldn’t understand was why I hadn’t.
When Lorie gave me a son of my own, Daniel Lee, she somehow thought I would suddenly get over my father, kind of like a boy getting a new puppy to replace the old dog that died.
On the first anniversary of Father’s death, the entire family visited his grave. That night, though I was worn out, I still couldn’t sleep. My mind kept going back to Father on his deathbed, how he tried to speak. I got up, stepped around the bed and peeked in on my boy, resting peacefully in a bassinet an arm’s length from his mother. He moved only in his breathing. Standing in the glow of a nightlight, I whispered, “Look at those itty bitty fingernails on those itty bitty fingers.”
Lori rolled over and spoke quietly. “What’s wrong, Honey?”
“Nothing. Just checking on my son.”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
After slipping on a sweatshirt, I quietly left the bedroom, carrying my lingering thoughts to the kitchen. Moonlight fell through the skylight as I removed a shot glass and a bottle of seven-year-old Jim Beam from the cabinet over the range. I uncapped the bottle, poured a shot, and then held it up.
“This one’s for you, Dad,” I whispered before downing the drink.
I poured another. “This one’s mine.”
The whiskey’s warmth ran through me as I longed for the lost opportunity to share a drink, not with the kind and gentle person who raised me, but with the stranger he wrote about. Clouds dimmed the skylight. I felt tired, alone, resentful. Growing up, other kids bragged about how tough their fathers were. Mine had been mild mannered, rarely raised his voice, and never lost his temper. When confrontation came along, he walked the other way. I once witnessed a madman spit on my father. Enraged over God knows what, the man wanted to fight. Father told him, “I know what it’s like to be in your shoes, to wanna go off on someone. But I also know what it’s like to live with the results.” When I asked him later what he meant by that statement, he said, “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to understand.” Kids in the neighborhood said my ol’ man was a yellow-bellied chicken. Why couldn’t I have known then what I know now?
Relaxed by the bourbon, I headed back to the bedroom. Still facing the other direction, Lori said, “Why do you keep getting up?”
“Can’t sleep. Thinking about Dad.”
“Honey, I know you miss him, but you can’t keep drinking yourself to sleep every night.”
“No shit.” Feeling guilty, I bent over, kissed her on the cheek, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll figure it out.”
“Hope so,” she whispered. “It’s making you mean.”
It’s making you mean ... it’s... Lori’s ugly words kept repeating as I escaped back to the kitchen. My hands were shaking, and my stomach was in a knot. Opening the pantry door, I turned on a light and used a step stool to reach the plywood lid to the attic entrance. Cold air fell over me while I pulled myself up into the darkness. Within seconds my eyes adjusted to the light bleeding in. Short roof clearance forced me to squat while stepping across narrow edges of ceiling joists. It didn’t take long to reach the spot marked by air ducts. Painfully balanced on my knees, I dug through insulation to remove the box I’d hidden there a year earlier. As I pulled on it, a neighbor’s dog began to howl. Chills ran through me. I took a deep breath and scurried toward the pantry.
Back in the kitchen, I searched through a junk drawer for the long-shaft butane lighter we use for candles. “This’ll do the trick,” I mumbled, while pulling my shoes on and then quietly slipping out the back door with the box in hand. My breath became visible in the night air as I placed my burden on a picnic table next to the cast iron fireplace normally used for yard waste. After removing the top tablet, I held it close and could almost feel Father. I had to force myself to strike the lighter. Distant howling continued. By the light of the small flame, I could see words:
It all made perfect sense when…
Teardrops fell. Ink ran, and I panicked, trying to rub the moisture away. That same sick emptiness I’d felt the day we buried Father on a hill in Grayson County overwhelmed me. A cold wind picked up, blowing out the flame. I shivered while attempting to strike it again and again, flick after flick with no luck. Scanning the star-filled heavens, I said, “Why can’t I do this? What am I missing? Are you trying to tell me something?” The dog quit howling, the wind ceased, and I felt warm.
Returning to the house, I started coffee before taking Father’s writing to the living room. I had missed something, and he wasn’t going to let me sleep until I found it.
From my father’s yellow writing tablets.
It all made perfect sense when my daddy first said, “Never pick a fight in another man’s backyard.” On November 11, 1983, I, Johnny Lee Smith, made my daddy’s simple wisdom my own as I drove toward a remote destination in the hills of Grayson County, Kentucky. Like we used to say down at the packinghouse, “I had a kill job waiting.” The situation wasn’t complicated. A ritual of righteousness was about to unfold. My task would be to turn a secluded wooded area into my backyard as I served sentence on a deserving target. The elders considered it an execution, capital punishment for a hideous crime against someone we love.
My roots are in Grayson County, Kentucky, a place where in the past, simple people, often considered a lesser class by those never acquainted, took not so simple measures when protecting their own. They were hard-working Americans of Irish-German decent who lived through truly tough times while fighting for Life, Liberty, and when necessary, their own form of Justice. They were not nearly as inbred and red-neck as some would expect from the rural hills of Kentucky. These were reasonable people. They wanted the law to work if and when it could. When it could not, they quietly did what they had to do.
I first approached the elders, confident in my ability to fight for family. When the day arrived, I prayed not only that I was ready, but that I was doing the right thing. After a restless night of tossing and turning, I crawled out of bed at 3:00 a.m. All my gear had been prepared the night before. Two cups of coffee set me off like a rocket. An hour passed quickly, zipping back and forth, double checking everything, chain smoking, and running the plan through my head. Before leaving, I removed eight-month old Christine from the crib, gave her a squeeze and a smooch, and then placed her in bed with her mother. Bending over, I kissed my beloved on the forehead and whispered, “Love you.”
“You too,” she replied, gathering the baby in her arms. Standing in the doorway for a moment, looking back, reminded me of my elders’ warnings about what I had to lose should something go wrong. At 4:30, I locked the back door and stepped into the cold, dark predawn. My vehicle for the day had been provided by the elders; a gray, 1980-model, Jeep Cherokee, owned by someone temporarily out of the country. If all went well, its disappearance would go unnoticed until after my need had passed. As planned, upon his return, the owner could turn it in as stolen. Lexington, Kentucky Police would find the Jeep parked in a conspicuous spot, far away from where I’d be using it. Obviously garage kept, I had dirtied it up a bit. A bucket of water and a few shovels of loose dirt did the trick. As I started the engine and drove away from the house, my heart raced and I thought of what my father had said. “If you’re not careful Johnny Lee, you’ll become your own worst enemy.” Somehow, he knew I’d be that way; sweaty palms, stomach all knotted up.
Were it left up to Pop, he might have taken care of the guy himself, or at least had one of his brothers do it. After all, they’d been professionals, trained by the United States Government. Uncle Bart fought in the Korean War. Uncle Willie joined at the end of Korea and then later, in 1961, he became part of the Green Berets in Vietnam. His second tour ended just before Samuel arrived there in 1966. Born in 1932, my father, James, could not join and never got drafted because of his bum leg. While his father fought overseas in WWII, Pop fell from the barn rafters. He’d been hanging tobacco. His broken leg healed, but he kept a limp.
My experience in killing had been limited to wild game and livestock, neither of which took much skill or discipline. Apparently, the elders were concerned over whether or not I could make the transition from animal to man. At no time on that fateful day did I feel truly alone. The living souls of my father and his brothers seemed ever present as I executed a plan created in part by them. Riding shotgun was the spirit of my grandfather, Robert Smith, and of course, as always, my little friend Gabrielle.
All morning, she whispered things like, Johnny, it’s not too late to turn back, or Are you sure you can live with what you’re about to do?
…....Gabrielle has been in my life since elementary school—a gift from my first grade teacher, Sister Mary Theresa. That lady in black taught me about God and the Church, how to read, write, think, question, and pray. Over time, Sister assumed the role of mentor, giving me private instruction on piano. For six years, that old woman considered me the child her chosen life denied. She became my virgin mother and like any good parent, wanted to protect me from life’s uncertainties. In our early days together, Sister spoke often of the world outside and my ability to handle its temptations. Sweet Sister Mary Theresa, despite her abundance of knowledge and talent, feared that world to the point of hiding her life away in the convent. She seemed to think that I too would have problems with the world outside, and so she gave me Gabrielle.
“Johnny,” questioned Sister Mary Theresa, “do you have a conscience?”
“Don’t we all?”
“Have you ever done something wrong, even though you knew it to be wrong before you did it?”
It sounded like a trick question, but after a moment of thought, I did admit to a few times when something inside told me to do one thing, and I did another.
Sister advised, “Appears to me you’re not listening when your conscience speaks. Perhaps we should name it. Then you’ll be more likely to listen.”
That day, Sister named my conscience Gabrielle…….
Traffic, though light, moved at what felt like a NASCAR pace. Getting stopped by police would abruptly end my trip; therefore, while everyone else drove in frenzy, I stayed slightly over the speed-limit of 55. Between sweaty palms and the butterflies left in my stomach by Gabrielle’s nagging presence, smoking a little Kentucky homegrown marijuana seemed in order. If my father had known about me bringing the smoke along, he would have called the whole thing off. Figuring a few hits might settle my nerves; I slightly lowered the window, lit up, took a long hard draw, and within seconds began coughing uncontrollably. “Good shit,” I whispered between gasps.
Moments later, I had dry palms, dry mouth, and a dry attitude. While understanding the elders’ doubts, I knew my own recipe for success. A child of the seventies, I’d be willing to do whatever it took to finish the job. Somewhere between Louisville and Grayson County, a regeneration of both mind and body needed to take place. Johnny Lee Smith would have to become a cold-blooded killer, an executioner, a soldier. Even if only for one day. At that moment, it seemed easy to slip off into my own little world, a place described to me by my father’s brother.
On rare occasions, especially when he’d been drinking whiskey, Uncle Samuel would speak about Vietnam and how it had stolen part of his youth. How he went from Friday night games and necking sessions in the Dairy Dip parking lot to fighting communism in a faraway country. While his friends hunted deer in Kentucky, Samuel hunted men in South Asia. Ironically, on my drive to hunt a man in Kentucky, I daydreamed of being overseas.
Lighted gauges in the Jeep’s dashboard reminded me of an airplane’s cockpit. “Tango One permission to take off,” I spoke while merging from one highway to the next. I floored that little V-8, and damned if it didn’t sound just like a small aircraft rushing down the runway. Gripping the steering wheel, I fell back into the headrest and allowed my imagination to lift off on a support assignment over a hot LZ in Vietnam.
I had brought along music, classical pieces compiled on several cassettes. Those tapes allowed me to make-believe my mission as a movie adventure with Mozart and Bach providing the musical score. To this day, my recollections of that trip and the events involved are like memories of a cinema experience. Most of us watch a movie and imagine we are there. I was there and imagined it was a movie.
By 5:00 a.m., Louisville had become a glow in the Jeep’s rear view mirror. Through the darkness I navigated southward on Interstate-65, as though on autopilot. While my left-brain drove, miles faded by unnoticed, and I began to look back to the beginning of my predicament......