Calling Bitsey Ashton a square peg in a round hole would be like saying the Titanic was a motorboat that sprang a leak. Bitsey is more like a trapezoid with razor edges, capable of drilling herself into any hole of any shape no matter how big or little. She’s now middle aged with grown daughters. At least the daughters think they’re grown; Bitsey is not so sure about her youngest, Molly, a brand new freshman at Mississippi University for Women on the Gulf Coast. Big sister Jamie Lew married Abdul Taylor and is living in New Orleans. Those sharp edges of Bitsey’s have been sanded smooth by hard times and tragedy—most devastating, the loss of her son, Justin.
She can fool most people into believing she’s just like a normal person, which has proven to be a blessing to her husband, Malcolm; but there are times when he wishes she’d get a little of her edge back.
Bitsey poked her head out of her mother’s womb two weeks prematurely on Christmas day, 1966. She came out screaming and flailing her arms and legs. Beet-faced. Hard little knots of muscle showing in her calves and biceps. “This’un’s gonna be a fighter,” her mother said with self-evident pride. The proud mama, Geraldine Fordham, seventeen at the time, was not married and refused to tell anyone who the baby’s father was. She said it was nobody’s damn business. Truth was, she didn’t know. Conception happened when she was living in a crash pad in Nashville. Throughout the six weeks that she lived there, at least two dozen hippies called the place home for a night or two or at most a month. They’d climb off the Greyhound bus at the downtown station and make their way as if by internal radar to Centennial Park where they would inevitably run into someone from one of the many crash pads in town such as the house on West End Avenue where Geraldine lived. Multiple sexual partners amongst the many West End hippies was the order of the day. Free love. Whatever gets you through the night. One of the men Geraldine slept with was a tall man with long blonde hair and charismatic personality. She slept with him only once, but they did not use a condom. She liked to think he was the father of her baby, but she knew she would never know for sure. He vanished from her life before she even knew she was pregnant.
Geraldine was a big woman. Not fat but big boned as she liked to say. She was loud and outspoken. Once she got started on any of her favorite subjects—war, love, sex, art, literature, the degradation of popular culture and the blight of consumerism—she was next to impossible to shut up. She wouldn’t even pause between sentences but filled the silences with ums and ahs and indescribable sounds and nobody else could sneak a word in—a trait her daughter would learn from her as a means of self-preservation. Geraldine loved to sing and did so often, whether others wanted to hear her or not. When she announced her pregnancy the commune threw a party to celebrate, and Geraldine told everyone she planned on having her baby at home. Natural childbirth of course. No anesthesia. She had heard about giving birth in a tub of warm water and thought that would be cool. She wanted someone to film it. But her housemates talked her out of birthing at home. They said it was too dangerous. What if something went wrong? Wimps, every one of ’em, Geraldine thought.
After the baby came out and Geraldine exulted about how she was going to be a fighter, she said, “That was a piece of cake, a mere bagatelle. I could’a done it at home if ya’ll hadn’t been such worry warts.” She called the baby the itsy-bitsy one and the name stuck. Soon it morphed into Bitsey.
Bitsey and Molly – seventeen years later
The world inside of Bitsey’s head was bleak and confusing. The world she moved in was crumbling all about her, and to top it all off her dear, innocent, gullible youngest daughter, Molly, had to go and be seduced into joining the freaking fundamentalist Holy Name Missionary Baptist Church by that slicker-than-snot born-again charlatan Sonny Staples, and she was moon-eyed over him like some kind of deluded young Juliet with a middle-age Romeo. How he was able to hornswoggle so many otherwise level-headed people was beyond Bitsey’s comprehension. She wanted to kill the son of a bitch with her own two hands, even if Malcolm and the sheriff and even Molly herself swore that what people thought happened between them never did. They spent a night together in an isolated cabin, just Molly and that preacher. That much there was no denying. So what else were people to think? They must have had sex—she, an over stimulated teenager, and he, a charlatan without morals.
And then Malcolm and Molly started going fishing together, a new way of bonding between father and daughter that left Bitsey out because she would never go fishing even if they asked her to join them, which they never did. “Everything’s just gone down the crapper,” she complained, “And you and Molly act like it’s all hunky dory.” She hated what she was becoming. Jealous of the comradery between her husband and her daughter. How could she sink so low? She remembered that there had been a time, and not too long ago, when she had worried about big things like war and poverty and bigotry and the economy. How did I shrink into a self-centered little ball of self-pity?
Malcolm tried to assure her. “We’ll get through this, honey. We’ll be all right. Be a family again. But you’ve got to put some trust in me and in your daughter, and by god you’ve got to quit drinking, because as long as you keep on drinking nothing will ever get better. That’s what’s killing you, and it’s killing us too. It’s destroying our family.”
That got through to her because for the first time ever he called her honey. In twenty years of married life he had never called her honey or sweetie or darling or anything like that. He had told her more times than she could calculate that she had a drinking problem and needed to get help and quit it, but she had always denied it, but when he called her honey and said “You’ve got to quit drinking” she knew he was right.
Red Warner – a year later
The little fishing camp is situated on a slight rise above the bayou. The road splits to go down to the boat docks to the left and the cabins to the right. One large house with a screened front porch with a rag-tag bunch of smaller cabins nearby. It looks nothing like what Mary Ann had described. The cabins, though small, are larger than he had expected and there’s a tremendous variety in style. The big house is white and well shaded by trees that look like they’ve been there since the creation of the world. There’s a sign out front: Manager. This would be Travis’s house, home of the man he has come twelve hundred miles to see. There’s a Freedom County Sheriff’s car parked in front of the house and a pickup truck in the carport. Jude pulls up in front and parks next to the sheriff’s car. In answer to his knock somebody shouts, “Gone fishing. Come back tomorrow.” There’s a brief burst of boisterous laughter from two voices, and then one of them says, “Don’t pay him no nevermind. Come on in.”
A cat leaps off the chair it was lying on and darts through a door and out of sight. Two men are seated on adjacent chairs. One is a big man, shirtless, wearing cut-off Dockers and clutching a beer bottle in one hand. His massive chest is freckled and matted with gray chest hair. He looks to be about the same age as Jude’s uncle Leo, meaning around eighty, and despite a big, red-splotched belly he looks to be as strong as a bull. The other man is even bigger and stronger, considerably younger, bald of head and black of skin. He’s neatly dressed in gray slacks and a white golf shirt. For some reason the guy reminds Jude of a football player, one that he’s seen recently. There’s a picture in his head: the Raiders, bald headed lineman or linebacker standing on the sideline, helmet in hand. He almost says something but thinks better of it. The image is a cliché and might even be considered racist. The guy speaks up. “Think you’ve seen me before, huh? Yep, I recognize that look. My name is Murabbi Taylor. I’m the sheriff around these parts. I used to play some football. I was known as Freight Train.”
“I . . . god yes, I do remember you. Damn. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Jude Garner.”
Travis introduces himself, “Hey, I’m Travis.” and asks him if he wants a beer. He points him toward the refrigerator. When he comes back with a cold Heineken in hand he stops and stands for a long time staring at a painting on the wall. “This is a Red Warner, isn’t it?”
“Uh huh,” Travis says.
“And that’s you, right? You’re Red Warner.”
Travis mutters, “Not another reporter.”
“No sir, I’m not a reporter. I’m an art dealer.”
“Crap! That’s even worse.”
Murabbi guffaws at that. Travis says, “Nothing’s for sale. What do you want from me?”
“Uh, I… uh… I want to make you famous.”
“I been famous. I didn’t much like it.”
“I know. I mean. . .” he pauses then stammers, “I shouldn’t a said that.” He takes a swig of his beer. He says, “My uncle Leo told me I ought’a talk to you.”
“Yes sir. Leo Garner. He’s my uncle.”
“Well why didn’t you say that right off? Shit fire! I figured ol’ Leo kicked the bucket long time ago. What’s he, about ninety-hundred years old?”
“Pretty much. Uh huh.”
They talk a little about Leo and about Travis’s relationship with him. He says Leo was the only dealer in New York he could trust. Jude asks him if he has completely given up painting.
“Not completely. Sometimes I piddle around with it a bit. But it’s different, you know. I don’t have to worry about what your uncle is going to say or what Randal Jarrett is going to write about it. No pressure, no trying to please collectors.”
Over the years since leaving New York Travis has painted sporadically. The movie star David Lawrence owns one of his paintings, one of the older ones. Murabbi has two of his newer works; Travis gave them to him. Travis even had three pieces in a juried show in a New Orleans gallery recently. He had entered them in the competition under an assumed name and sold one—laughably for $300 (one of his paintings from 1985 recently sold at auction for $350,000, none of which Travis got).
“I’m like what you call a Sunday painter now,” Travis says. He claims to mess around with it once in a while but not seriously. “Would you like to see some of my stuff?”
Francis Gerald Gossing lives alone in a one-room apartment above the Rough Rider, a bar near Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi. In the early part of the evening the bar is fairly quiet and there’s not much traffic on the street, but starting around nine o’clock and increasing until well after midnight every night the sounds of country music waft upward into his apartment and there’s a constant hum and honk of cars.
You might think that the nasal whine of country music mingled with the indistinguishable voices and the rumble of passing cars and motorcycles on the street would bother anyone living over the bar, but the racket has become to Francis something like night sounds from a campground, as soothing to him as the flow of water over rocks and the chirp and chatter of birds. His own private cacophony of calm—better than counting sheep, even though he likes doing that too. He doesn’t sleep much anyway. When he gets tired of the sounds from below he plays old jazz and blues records on his turntable. He’s convinced the sound is better on vinyl, even if the records are scratched. He likes the authenticity.
There are a dozen steps to the metal staircase that ascends the alley side of the building to his front door. The landing is barely large enough to accommodate a kitchen chair Francis drags out to sit on when he wants to watch and listen to the circus of humanity below. More often than not though he sits directly on the metal floor and lets his feet dangle off. From the little landing he can look out over Parker Avenue and observe the comings and goings of the airmen from Keesler and the fishermen, shrimpers and would-be cowboys who frequent the tattoo parlors and juke joints and fast food restaurants on the strip.
He always counts the steps going up and down even though he has long since memorized the number—as if he thinks someone might have added or subtracted a step or two while he was away. He likes the constancy of numbers. Counting gives him comfort and keeps him grounded in reality. He counts the number of windows on a building, the number of trees on a block or in a field, the people on the number three bus, and the seconds ticking off on a clock. He does twenty-five repetitions of curls with the fifteen-pound dumbbells every morning, and twenty-five push-ups. There are four hundred and twenty-three pictures on his wall including photographs he has taken, drawings he has done over the years, and pictures cut out of magazines. The cut-out pictures are reproductions of paintings by favorite artists: Picasso, Munch, Modigliani, and photos of favorite movie stars: Patrick Stewart, Alan Cummings and Phylicia Rashad from the old Cosby Show, whom he thinks is the greatest and most beautiful actress ever.
Francis rarely admits to himself that he was shaken when he heard that she had defended Cosby when those women accused him of rape. He doesn’t want to think about that because he abhors violence and believes the women but it shakes his idea of who the man he so admires was. Thirty women, thirty women, thirty at last count on the news. Think of something else…
From the landing outside his door he often sees the same people. The same prostitute works the same corner every night. The same guy in the red Corvette picks her up at the same time every Monday night. The same old bag lady pushes her shopping cart past the bar. He finds the repetition comforting. Coming home after his first art class at MUW he plops his books on the table and opens the refrigerator and gets out a Mountain Dew. There are three more on the shelf and two Pepsi Colas, and a six pack of beer. The beer has been in his refrigerator for three weeks and there’s only one bottle missing. Francis is not a heavy drinker.
The cramped apartment looks like the back room in an electronics repair shop. Computer boxes, speakers, monitors, boxes of wires and cables, parts of computers, record players, and radios are stacked in an order only Francis can decipher. He built his own computer and has his own server. There are also books filling shelves and stacked on the floor. The piles apparently haphazard but a cursory glance at book spines gives evidence that they are arranged by genre and author, as are his 78 and 33 rpm records.
He picks out an Alberta Hunter album from the stack of seventy-eights and puts it on the turntable, peels off his shirt and drapes it over one of his two kitchen chairs, and then he sits down at his computer. Alberta sings, “Gee but it’s hard to love someone when that someone don’t love you.”
Molly and Francis
Molly is now a freshman in college. Her friend, Francis Gossing, had a big fight with their art teacher and stormed out of class. Molly followed him, and now they are together in his apartment.
She has finished off two of the beers they picked up. He has hardly touched his. For the longest time after telling her about Mr. Fox and the portrait he has been staring at it. Now there’s a smile on his face. He looks at her as if seeing her for the first time, and he picks up his beer and takes a big swig.
“Just lost in thought,” he says. “Ooh, this is good.” He turns his beer bottle up for another drink.
She says, “You were actually pretty masterful back there?”
“In class. When you blasted Darren.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess so. I guess I can probably forget about getting an A in that class.”
He opens one more drink for each of them. She lifts her bottle in salute and says, “To art class and Hamlet and speaking your mind.”
They clink bottles together and each takes a big swallow.
He says, “I’m not used to drinking this much. The world has gone wobbly.”
“Good wobbly or bad wobbly?”
They are seated together now on the loveseat. She says, “You know, I think that picture of yours triggered something in Darren. Like maybe he’s got his own demons. Maybe he was molested as a child. What you want to bet? I bet he was.”
“What about you?”
“Was I molested? No.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean what was it about the memory you illustrated that left such a big impression?”
He’s quiet for so long that she thinks he is not going to respond, but then he says, “It’s something that has haunted me as long as I can remember. But it’s just an image that somehow got stuck in my head. I don’t know if it’s something that really happened or something I dreamed or what.”
When she tries to draw him out on the subject he says, “There’s really nothing more to tell than what was in the picture. There was a woman. My mother, probably. I can’t really remember her but I think of the woman in the vision as my mother. And there was a cop. A gun went off, but I don’t know who shot it or if anybody was hit. Her or the cop. I think I must have witnessed it, but I was just a baby. I can’t remember.”
“Geez,” she says. “I didn’t know things like that happened to real people.”
He pushes himself up and walks unsteadily across the room to a dresser and pulls open the bottom drawer and pulls out sheets of drawings, all variations on the same subject, and the loose pages of his book about the star and the gun. She looks at the drawings. He says, “I have done a hundred and twenty-seven drawings of the woman and the star and the gun. I destroyed thirty-eight of them, leaving eighty-nine counting the one Darren crumbled into a ball. I have written thirteen stories about the incident. I think of the guy with the gun as Sheriff Moss.”
“He’s mayor now.”
“Yeah, I know, but he was the sheriff back then and somehow I think it was him. Like I saw him and my mother. I don’t know who tried to shoot who or if they hit or missed. Who knows?”
“Have you asked her?”
“I can’t. I don’t know where she is. She ran off. I think it must have been right after that. Like she shot him and then she ran, or he shot her or . . . this is the scariest part, maybe I got a hold of the gun and shot it. I don’t know if she’s dead or alive. He might have killed her. Or I might have. Sometimes I think I remember taking the gun out of his holster and shooting it.” His eyes lock on hers. They suddenly look bigger, haunted, terrified. Icy blue eyes. She wonders if she has ever before noticed the color. He says, “I think I killed her, my mother.”
“Oh no, honey, no, no. You were just a baby.”
He says he thinks he tried to shoot the sheriff and missed, and the shot hit her. He imagines it must have been a direct hit in the heart. He likes that she called him honey.
*When Alec Clayton was in high school his parents owned a cabin at a fishing camp on Mary Walker Bayou near the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he spent many weekends and summers swimming and fishing and exploring a labyrinth of rivers and streams. That camp is now a primary setting in his Freedom Trilogy. Visual Liberties, just published, is the third book in the trilogy, which began with The Backside of Nowhere and was followed by Return to Freedom.
When not writing novels Alec writes art reviews for the Weekly Volcano and theater reviews for The News Tribune. He lives in Olympia, Washington with his wife, Gabi.