My mother was raised by alcoholics in Arkansas, then fled to an aunt’s house in Gary, Indiana, when she was old enough, or as she liked to say, “just past majority.” She had been raised in the rural south, knew nothing about men and sex, knew nothing about much of anything. Later, she related that when she got pregnant with me, she stayed up all night reading a biography of Napoleon because she had heard that your baby (she correctly assumed I would be a boy) would be influenced by what you read the night before the birth and, somehow, believed I would be born the next morning.
Stifled in Arkansas and desperate for a job when she moved in with her aunt and uncle, she scanned the local want ads and found one for a bar waitress at a town fairly far away. I will never know why she chose that one, since she only understood the word “waitress” and definitely not the “bar” part of it.
Raised a quasi-Catholic—the only spirits her mother influenced her with were the ones that came from a bottle—she was hired on the spot by my Jewish grandmother who, given the nature of bars, was drawn to my mother’s Lana Turner-like beauty. She gave Mom the job and put her behind the bar washing glasses, because my mother did not know a single thing about booze. Instant trauma! Couples sat on the bar stools and made out right in front of her. She told me she learned to wash glasses with her eyes closed.
But her eyes weren’t closed when she saw my good-looking, suave father, a stark physical contrast to this willowy blonde. They were smitten. She had never had a boyfriend, only some crushes when she was a ballet dancer in Little Rock—good enough, she told me, to have a particular restaurant move the tables aside so she could dance. My father—a life-long, arch womanizer until an early heart attack took him at 51, his pre-bypass lifestyle predicting his demise as it did for so many smoking, coffee-chugging, boozing, red-meat-gorging men back then—was mesmerized. My mother’s beauty and naïveté and probably her unwillingness to be physical without marriage propelled him to propose to her in six weeks, an offer not a single part of her meek and mild character could possibly refuse.
Having no operable religion on either side, they went to a Justice of the Peace in the nearby county seat. After a quickie marriage, they excitedly held hands as they ran down the stairs toward their honeymoon car, where, to their utter shock, they were greeted by a policeman who promptly arrested them for disturbing the peace.
Into the picture had come my father’s uncle, Art, a rich, influential tavern owner who paid the local Mafia for protection until he refused and they shot him in cold blood, a few years after the marriage, disguising it as a robbery outside his garage. But for now, he was just the influential jokester who had a flare for arcane humor and had decided that his favorite nephew and his new bride should spend at least part of their honeymoon night in side-by-side cells instead of each other’s aching arms.
My father was articulate, my mother in shock. I am sure my father protested vociferously and got angry—his terrible temper was eventually one of the main things that destroyed this marriage made in haste, notwithstanding the wanton adultery. But his protestations reached deaf ears, and my parents were spirited to adjacent cells.
They expected it to be short-lived, just a quick prank by Art which would pass quickly, but, despite some cage rattling by my father and a flood of Mom’s tears, the police ignored their pleas and left them in jail. Later, that strange uncle confessed he went out of town and forgot about them, but not before he had given the police, who were his cronies, strict instructions not to release the newlyweds until he gave the word.
Early the next day, the anxious police captain called Art and my parents were released into their marriage. The story made the front page of the local paper the following morning, the picture showing them peering out from behind bars, Dad with his jaunty hat and Mom with her beloved Mouton coat, shock still all over their faces.
Originally published in River and South Review