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By Isaac Swift
Laurel Francis Swaw caught the first available train back to Birmingham on June 12th, 1942. The world had been at war for almost two years at this point and things overseas were getting ugly. She left with her and Lucky’s baby girl just five days before Lucky’s twenty fifth birthday. They had been married just under a year at this point. The year had been tumultuous and full of pain.
She had experienced enough.
Before leaving with their baby Frankie, who was just a few months old at the time, Laurel left Lucky with harsh words that his mind would not soon let pass.
“Lucky, you are the worst thing that’s happened to me,” She had said to him.
“You’re just a punk kid, a boy that needs to grow up. You don’t know what it means to be a man, Lucky. I really don’t think you ever will. Just think about that when you’re here alone trying to figure out why I’m not here anymore.”
Lucky could recall shouting and flipping their kitchen table over in their small East Nashville apartment that was located on the second floor. He couldn’t recall what he had said to her before she left for the last time, as much as he tried to remember. Her parting words would however be burned into his memory. He remembered baby Frankie fussing loudly. The littlest things stick out in a person’s mind when they’re trying to grasp their memory for the whole picture.
“You’ve ruined every good thing you’ve ever had in your life, Lucky. You’re too selfish to even see it right in front of your face. I wish you would have gone to war with the rest of the boys in this neighborhood. I would have been spared the pain of ever knowing you.” She had said.
He remembered the pictures falling off the walls from how hard she slammed the door for the last time to their roach infested efficiency apartment. He could hear baby Frankie screaming all the way down the hall until her cries faded away. His entire life had been uprooted and he was still trying to process it. The neighbors on the floor below had been banging on his floor (their ceiling) with a broom handle in an attempt to quiet them down while he and Laurel had been arguing and Lucky was just now taking notice of it.
Lucky went downstairs at this point and kicked the shit out of Darnell Huckabee, his thirty three year old downstairs neighbor who worked nights as a janitor. It was an ass beating that was spawned out of misplaced rage. Being hospitalized over a noise disturbance is in no way the result of an unperturbed mind.
Of course, Huckabee’s wife (a bitch of a wife in Lucky’s opinion) called the cops on him. What wife wouldn’t after their crazed upstairs neighbor breaks down their door and starts beating the hell out of their husband? Lucky ended the ass beating by cramming the broom handle up the man’s ass.
It was a month or two into his four month stretch in jail when Lucky really started to think he was going to crack. He didn’t think about his job he was going to lose due to not being able to show up. He didn’t think about his apartment he was going to lose due to not being able to pay the rent. He didn’t think about his car and what at this point must have been an ever-growing pile of parking tickets under his windshield wiper blades (he had parked his car beside a fire hydrant).
All he thought about was the growing hate in his head and the growing pain in his heart. The hate for the way he had treated her. The pain he had to deal with now for not giving a shit about changing his ways. The hate he had for himself for getting thrown in jail while his wife and daughter were settling down somewhere else. Frankie had his smile and his eyes. Losing her that day was like losing his own life.
“The thing you ought to do,” an old man he shared a cell with had said to Lucky.
“Is once you get out of here, just get yourself together. Get cleaned up and get another job. Cut off ties with things you’ve done and made bad. Don’t go looking to make something you done made bad worse.”
Lucky sneered at this. His youth and arrogance showed.
“What do you know, old man? Fuck off and leave me alone, would you?”
The old man chuckled at this. He had seen it coming.
“I know your kind, kid. Cheap dime store hoods that think they’re the top of the shit pile. East Nashville punks. You ain’t as growed up as you think you are, boy. You go out in the world with the way you’re acting and this world’s gonna eat your ass up.”
Lucky raised an eyebrow at the old man. To those who knew him, they would know a smart remark was coming. Lucky wasn’t much of one to take criticism. If he got it from anyone, he was more than likely going to have something to say in return.
“You callin’ me a punk, old timer? It looks to me like you’re in here with me. You in here by accident?” Lucky asked.
His tone was condescending and snide. It was nothing the old man hadn’t heard in his life before. It reminded him that he had been this kid at one point in his life.
“A man’s life isn’t simple, boy. Sometimes things happen that you can’t really plan for.” The old man replied.
“You keep calling me a boy and I’m going to knock the shit out of you.” Lucky said, jumping up and balling up his fists.
The old man looked at Lucky’s hands and noticed he had “love” tattooed across the fingers on one of his hands.
“Whoever raised you must have taught you to get hard whenever you hear something you don’t take a liking to.” The old man stated matter-of-factly while playing with the frayed cuff of the sleeve on his shirt.
Lucky threw himself back on his cot and looked up at the ceiling. He kept stealing glances at the old man.
“What the hell do you care how I was brought up?” Lucky asked, finally looking at the old man again.
“What difference doesn’t it make?” The old man asked, countering Lucky’s question.
“You do whatever you want, boy. If you’re going to go off half-cocked into this world, don’t be surprised if it don’t take kindly to the bullshit you throw at it.”
Lucky had nothing to say to this. He wasn’t used to hearing things like this from people and he wasn’t sure how to process it. It felt strange. Growing old had never crossed Lucky’s mind. He never had put a thought through his mind that what he did now would have an impact on things that he did later.
The guard slid their meals under the cell door a few minutes later. The old man ate his meal greedily while Lucky had seemed to have lost his appetite. He stared at the ceiling as if there were something to see beyond it.
Lucky made it through the next few months without incident. This was a miracle for a man with a history of behavioral issues. Stepping out a free man into the chilly October air with only the clothes on his back, Lucky hadn’t figured out much of anything that resembled a plan. Animals don’t tend to think ahead. They don’t form plans. They only act according to instinct. This was the sword the Walsh T. Swaw lived by, or Lucky to those who knew him around East Nashville.
Lucky wasn’t really an animal, though from an outside standpoint, the title fit fairly well. He was a man who had been “grabbed up by the hair of the head” as some would say. He was in constant lack of parental attendance (His father was on the road a lot) and had basically gone through life up until this point doing whatever he wanted and whoever he wanted (which head to his troubled relationships shattering in his face). He was accountable to no one but himself. So, this is how those who encountered him in life would regard him as an animal.
Lucky was now finding himself overcome with feelings he wasn’t used to. It was as if he had been under water and had risen to the surface too fast, causing him to feel both light headed and overcome by a migraine at the same time.
He had found Laurel as a rare gem in a coal mine, an Alabama native who didn’t seem to fit into East Nashville. One of the dirty angels that he ran with noticed her and nudged Lucky to look in her direction. None of them were any good, but they all figured that beauties like Laurel would find their bad boy charm appealing. For the time being, it didn’t work. When Lucky went over to talk to her, Laurel would have nothing to do with him. In his mind, she was playing hard to get when she told him to get lost.
Her hot headed, feisty personality intrigued him from the get go. It would take a while to bring her around to his way of thinking. It would be a mistake on her part.
Years later, Lucky would look back on his actions in life and wonder why a bombshell like Laurel would have wanted anything to do with a street punk like him. He secretly had it in his mind even back then. His arrogance just kept it suppressed.
Lucky spent the next few nights sleeping by the Cumberland River on the outskirts of downtown. A switchblade in his pocket and a trash fire in a barrel was his only company. He could have huddled up with the bums who camped out under the bridges down river. He could have even gotten a bit of food in his stomach. Companionship wasn’t something that he felt he needed right now. He watched the gentle flow of the river, the sparkle of the blue reflecting off of the chilly October moon.
He couldn’t help but have his thoughts drift to Laurel. Her eyes were the coldest blue he had ever seen. His gut was in knots just from the thought of her. He loved her, he knew that much. He knew he had screwed up and he was afraid at this point that he couldn’t fix it.
He sat by himself by the Cumberland thinking of the life he had screwed up. The cold of fall didn’t affect him. His body wasn’t even there. In his mind he was in suspended animation, only existing in the pain of the things he had ruined for himself.
“She’ll come around.” He told himself.
“Or maybe she won’t.”
By now, Frankie would probably crawling. She might even be talking. It turned his stomach to think of the only two girls that mattered to him in the worlds, those who were completely out of his reach. After the third night of sleeping under the cold stars, Lucky decided it was time to get his girls back. The only problem was, he wasn’t sure how he was going to go about it. He didn’t even know where Laurel had gone when she took the baby left.
Halloween was the first time Lucky’s older sister, Mary Bell, had seen him since before he had gone to jail. Of course, she had heard of the events that had transpired. It spread through the family like a wild fire in a hay field.
“I ain’t telling you where she is, Walsh.” Mary Bell told him at the kitchen table that Halloween night over coffee.
Mary Bell and Laurel had become good friends since Lucky and she had gotten together. They still kept in touch and he knew it.
“I knew you’d be coming around. Just figured it would be matter of time.” She added.
Lucky, who had turned down his cup of Joe, shined his infectious smile that Mary Bell knew all too well. It the kind of smile that said “you know you can’t stay mad at me for long”. And it was true. Lucky (who was ten years her junior and more like a son to her than a brother) was Mary Bell’s favorite. She had a soft spot for the kid. He was a faux momma’s boy. Her name was tattooed on his forearm above a crucifix. It was the only tattoo besides a tattoo of Laurel’s name on his right forearm with a cloud wrapped around it that would not fade with time.
“Now, Mary Bell, what’s that supposed to mean?” Lucky asked coyly with his boyish grin that gave him the illusion of appearing innocent.
Mary Bell laughed a little, though trying to remain stern.
“You know what it means, Walsh. You want to know what’s going on with Laurel and the baby. Don’t act like this is just a little friendly visit to your big sis. You ain’t knocking around for company.”
It was true. As close as his sister was to him, Lucky had still come calling to Georgia Avenue with a motive. It made the smile fade from his face as a crackling noise rattled in his throat. He looked down at the table as if inspecting it for imperfections, all the while stealing sheepish glances at Mary Bell.
“You heard from her?” He asked in a voice that came out smaller than he had anticipated
Mary Bell’s eased, relaxed face tightened like a snare drum being tuned. Her eyes narrowed at Lucky as she set her cup of coffee down. Those green eyes could burn though a man’s soul. They certainly burned through his.
“Yes, I have. If you know what’s good for her, just leave her be. Just leave well enough alone, Walsh.”
Lucky slammed his fist on the table. It startled Mary Bell as her coffee sloshed out of her cup onto the table. He realized he had lost his temper and could now not look his sister in the face. He couldn’t look at those eyes of hers judging him.
“You’ve got to start learning that some mistakes you make, you can’t just talk your way out of. Sometimes you gotta live with the choices you go and make.” She said staring him dead in the face.
Lucky sat staring again at the table. He didn’t dare speak against Mary Bell. She was a force he did not recon with.
“Well, you gonna say anything, Walsh? You’d have something to say if it was anyone else.”
He looked up at her with his eyes low with shame.
“I just want to get my family back, Mary Bell.”
“We all want things we can’t get, son. The sooner you get to learning that the better you’ll go about being.”
Lucky hated when she talked to him like this. She hated that she called him Walsh and he hated that she called him son. She was always so damn stone faced and blunt with him. She always left him with the reminder that world was a cold dead place. He was just convinced that he was larger than life. Her words put cigarettes out on his soul.
Mary Bell’s face looked tired and warn. At thirty five, she would have easily passed for fifty. She was a hard woman who had fought through a hard life. Her husband was currently fighting overseas like Lucky should have been. No one could figure out why Lucky hadn’t been drafted.
She eyed the hoodlum ink than ran down her baby brother’s arms. His slicked back Casanova hair. The pompous look in his eyes. It disappointed her.
He pulled out a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket and brought it to his lips as if to further enhance his rough and tumble persona.
“No smoking in my house, Walsh. Put it away.”
He shrugged as if to appear as if he didn’t care and returned to cigarette to his shirt pocket.
“You don’t know what a hard life is about, Walsh. You think you’re hard with all this shit on your arms and your bad attitude, but you don’t know a damn thing about this world.”
Lucky rolled his eyes. Mary Bell reached over the table and slapped him across the head. She didn’t take any of his insolence.
“Ow! Goddamnit!” He yelled, rubbing his head.
“You keep your voice down. Your niece and nephew are asleep.”
He tried to object, but he knew better. Mary Bell continued. She kept her voice low, but stern. She was not consciously aware of this.
“While my man’s busy fighting the japs, I’m stuck here to worry and work fifteen hours a day in the factory to try to keep my youngins fed and a roof over their head. Do you think we would last if I acted like you, Walsh? Slumming around with thugs and laying around with creatures of the night instead of being home with a family? Being a man ain’t what you think it is. Being a man means taking responsibility for what you do.”
Lucky was drumming his fingers nervously on the table. His eyes stared blankly at the table once again. Knots twisted in his stomach.
“Still, the words I say to you go in one goddamn ear and out the other.”
“Taking the lord’s name in vain, are we, sissy?” He asked, looking up to read her eyes.
She didn’t appear amused at first, but she offered a lame smile to this. He knew his charm was infectious, even poisonous.
“You look just like momma when you smile like that, Walsh. I think it’s the dimple in your cheek.”
“Don’t say things like that. You’re making me out to be a queer.”
Mary Bell raised an eyebrow.
“I can say what I want to you. I wiped your ass and fed you while momma was busy making beds at the hotel.”
It was true. Mary Bell had been as much a mother to Lucky as their own mother had. Someone had to put food on the table while their father was on the road just as someone had to take care of Lucky when he was small when no one else was home. As the oldest, it was a task naturally handed to Mary Bell by their mother, who worked late most of the time. This wasn’t a task she enjoyed, but she knew she had to do her part. She had to be accountable to her mother and make sure the baby was tended to, fed his bottle and raised while their mother worked her hands raw through Lucky’s childhood.
These ideals were those which Lucky was unfortunately not raised on. The raising of children was over with (as he was the last of the children) and he was left to his own devices while one parent scrubbed toilets and turned down beds and the other went around the country working in mechanic shops and driving tractor trailers. Lucky was raised to be accountable to no one but himself.
Lucky put his hand on Mary Bell’s. She looked him in the eye. Her look was tired and weary.
“Mary Bell,” Lucky almost said in a whisper.
“Just tell me where Laurel and the baby is. I promise I won’t go making a fool of myself. I just need to talk to her.”
Mary Bell sighed while stirring her coffee. The murky liquid was now lukewarm.
“She’s back in Birmingham with her mamma. She’s raising up Frankie down there and going to school to be a nurse.”
Mary Bell had barely finished talking when Lucky jolted up from the chair, satisfied with learning the information he had come there to collect. She grabbed his arm, stopping him. She looked at him with a glare that could burn through his soul.
“Don’t make me regret telling you.” She said.
Lucky lingered a moment loner and was off into the night. She regretted telling him as soon as the words had spilled from her lips. Her coffee was now cold to the touch.
That very night, Lucky went down to Union Station and through a few bums he knew found a box car in the train yard that was bound for Birmingham. It was a mail car shipping postage for the post office located across the street.
Lucky made sure the coast was clear of train yard bulls (police officers that guarded over train yards at night to watch of for stowaways) and hopped into one of the mail cars bound for Birmingham. He would wait in the mail car for a few hours before the train line left, beginning its route sometime after midnight.
Lucky sat in one corner of the mail car eying the pistol he had traded one of the tramps at Union Station for his father’s pocket watch and his own switchblade. He rested his head on a sack of mail as he eyed the silver moon light through cracks in the sliding wood door of the mail car. It was chilly and dark, though the climate wasn’t on Lucky’s mind. He was alone in this mail car and all he had to keep him company was the gentle rumbling sound of the train crossing the tracks south bound out of Nashville and the recognition that he didn’t have a damn clue what he was going to do when he got to Birmingham.
He turned away from the moonlight and eyed the pistol. A .38 Special the bum had probably hocked off a soldier back home on leave. It felt odd in his hand, foreign. It didn’t even occur to him that he had traded a valuable keepsake for something he didn’t even know if he would need or not. At the time, he figured he would come across some rough customers around Florence (probably men recently fired from their factory jobs for drinking) and if they were looking for trouble while bumming down south with him, he’d make them realize really quick that he was no one to fuck around with.
In all reality, Lucky was just scared. He was an upset street hooligan who was still getting used to the idea that his life was gone. His only thought was to get back what was rightfully his. He could barely even fathom that all this was even happening to him. He couldn’t believe that it all wasn’t a bad dream that he was would soon wake from.
“What the fuck am I going to say to her?” He thought out loud.
“What am I going to do? Will Frankie know me?”
The vivacious, fiery attitude that Laurel had was what attracted Lucky to her from the start. He never thought he would have to go up against her personality from this side of the fence. She was strong willed and once her mind was made up, nothing in hell could change it. Not even him. He hoped he had a slim chance in making a difference. He had to. He was desperate as hell.
Lucky fell asleep for a few hours when the screeching of the brakes shook him awake. He realized the train was slowing. The train was at a railway split and was slowing down outside Florence to take the south east rail way.
Lucky peered out through the cracks in the slats of the sliding door of the mail car, seeing if any hobos were at the split to take advantage of the slowing freight. None were around. This wasn’t really all that surprising.
The hobos (who did travel) did their traveling in the earlier part of September if they were going anywhere at all in that time of the year. They spread stories at train yards about the cold nights leaving hobos with pneumonia, and other stories about train yard bulls finding the tramps dead and stiff in freight cars, killed from exposure to the cold. Of course, Lucky wasn’t thinking about this. He knew the stories but was too preoccupied with his pain to think about what he already knew. He only raced to the sliding wooden door with his pistol drawn on instinct. He was running on auto pilot. His mind was a separate machine that was operating on its own fuel.
The south west railway past the split would go through cities like Tupelo and Booneville and eventually into the state of Mississippi if a line of freight went long enough. This particular cargo route would pass along a few cities like Decatur, but mostly smaller towns like Arley and Parish where transients were less likely to climb aboard the passing freight cars if they were to have to stop. The small towns along this route and the time of year it was (when most hobos generally would not travel) were both upsides on this trip Lucky was taking, though they were not immediate concerns to him, nor were they conscious concerns when choosing this particular route he found himself on. His thought process during this ordeal was wholly linear and on instinct. Luck of the draw just so happened to be on the boy that folks in East Nashville called Lucky when he ran down to Union Station half-cocked.
It would take several hours to get to Birmingham from the split. It was fairly chilly and Lucky was beginning to realize that he was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since before he went to visit Mary Bell.
The turkey sandwich he had hocked off a street vendor was now nonexistent within his system. He had shit it out by carefully leaning his ass out the mail car somewhere past Columbia in the wee hours of the morning. He had wiped his wet ass on a sympathy card for Morgan Stonewell’s loss of her mother. Lucky was not aware that this was who that card was bound for and Mrs. Stonewell was not aware that she would not be receiving her condolence.
Without prior planning and his flip of a dime decision making, Lucky would have to suffer until he could steal something to eat in Birmingham. Hopefully he wouldn’t get caught and get hauled off to jail, but if he did, he figured at least he’d be in the same city as his sweetheart. He would have made it that far. The drive to reclaim his family was all that fueled his existence at this point. He was the bare teeth that gnashed on a rabid, wounded animal. He would kill a bastard before he let them get between him and what was his.
The hobos he knew from the train yards at Union Station had come to Nashville from routes out of parishes in Louisiana like Terrebonne and Saint Mary’s. These were the same hobos who advised against traveling any time after mid-September even if you had warm clothing on. They had been on the same route going up through Birmingham to get to Nashville that he would be taking. Though they advised against the journey, they told Lucky he’d know when the train was almost to Birmingham when he passed a tobacco field in Parish (a small town outside of Birmingham) with a pile of dead trees in the center of it. You can’t miss it, they had told him. Those bayou boys had referred to the pile of dead trees as Carcosa. Lucky had no clue what Carcosa was and really didn’t give a shit. The relevant relation to the landmark was it meant he would be just an hour or so away from the city.
Sometime in the afternoon (he didn’t know what time it was because he no longer had his father’s watch) the box car crawled beside Carcosa. The field of tobacco was flatter than Kansas. Lucky pissed out the open side door and thought nothing more about it. He tapped thoughtlessly at the spot in his pants where the gun was tucked away.
As the train’s brakes began to squeal as it approached the Birmingham train yard, Lucky took this opportunity to jump out before the bulls took to searching for stowaways. He hadn’t froze his ass off just to meet the blunt side of a billy club. Lucky dove from the mail car (which was now traveling roughly thirty miles per hour) onto a pile of tires outside a used car lot. He ricocheted off the heap of rubber and did a sort of cartwheel before landing squarely on his ass. He dusted himself off, trying to rub out the pain in his rear.
Now on the ground and out of the mail car, Lucky took his time to familiarize himself with his surroundings. He was on the outskirts of the city, off of a street lined with automotive shops and car lots. Those were the kinds of areas he and his hoodlum friends would have taken boosted cars, looking to acquire some ill gotten loose change. He knew Laurel would be nowhere near this side of town. She probably would have gotten to classy to associate herself with the gritty reality of this area. To her, it would smell like depression and poverty and death. Areas like this was home to Lucky. The arrogance he had for being from somewhere like here was part of what destroyed every sense of responsibility he would have had.
After finding his mother-in-law’s address in a phone book at a nearby booth, Lucky got directions to Primrose Avenue from a mechanic at one of the nearby auto shops. He mentally jotted down the names of the land marks to look out for, what streets to take and which parkways to note if he had gone too far. To Lucky, the directions sounded fairly easy to remember. After he got all the viable information he needed, Lucky walked west of the direction he had arrived.
He found himself on an unmarked street slightly south west of the train yard. He knew the apporximate distance to Primrose Avenue, which was way on the other side of town and too far for him to reach on foot. When he spotted an old clunker parallel parked not thirty feet away, he looked around to make sure no one was around and walked quickly over to it.
Hotwiring a car was easy enough, but he was hoping whoever parked this piece of shit in the street had left the keys in the ignition. Coming from a city himself, he knew people rarely ever did this. Still, he held onto the slim chance that they had been left in vehicle regardless. The doors were unlocked, so that was a start. Getting into the vehicle (that smelled of rot and old vinyl) he found the keys dangling from the ignition.
He had lived up to his nickname once again. They didn’t call him Lucky for nothing. Turning the engine over, the tail pile spit out a cloud of blue smoke as the serpentine belt started to whine. He took off in the direction that the mechanic had described to him.
Lucky found the house on Primrose Avenue without much difficulty. He only got turned around a handful of times, which was to be expected traveling in a city he wasn’t familiar with. The old car had only stalled once or twice, being surprisingly reliable for the condition it appeared to be in. He dumped the car off in an abandoned lot a few streets over after he found the house. After he doubled back, he walked back over to the destination.
He went over what he say and do at least a thousand times prior to this moment, but he still wasn’t entirely sure what words would come out after he knocked on the door. He wondered what his daughter would remember him. He wondered if Laurel would be home. He wondered if she would be as pretty as he remembered and he wondered if she would slam the door in his face and call the police.
His heart pained him and his stomach twisted about in painful knots. As he forced himself to knock on the door of the modest suburban home, he couldn’t help but run endless scenarios through his mind. He was tired and cold and scared and deathly afraid of the rejection that he knew was looming over his head. He just wanted his life back.
Lucky felt his heart drop into his stomach as the person inside the home answered the door. It wasn’t Laurel. It his mother-in-law. It was a man in a police uniform that he had never seen in his life. He was standing face to face with a Birmingham City police officer. The man crossed his arms.
The police officer was tall, having a good foot on lucky who stood at just five-six. He was also a good fifteen or twenty years older than Lucky, showing though his salt and pepper hair that had once been a chestnut brown. His eyes were dark and every bit as piercing as Mary Beth’s.
Lucky’s anxiety was shooting through the roof. Why was this cop here? Where was Laurel? Had she known he was coming and called the cops? Mary Bell could have called and tipped her off. Could he have been at the wrong house? No, he had checked the address ten times.
“Can I help you, son?” the officer asked. His voice had no sense of aggression in it.
It was if he were asking if he could help Lucky find where the hamburger buns were in a grocery store.
“I-uh, I must have the wrong house.” Lucky said turning to leave.
At this point he was so glad he had the forethought to dump the stolen jalopy off before coming here.
The officer stepped out of the doorway and put a hand on Lucky’s shoulder.
“You don’t have the wrong house, Walsh. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Lucky tensed. His blood pressure suddenly went up. It was time to be on the offensive. He knew this could go really bad, really fast.
“Call me George.” The officer said, cutting Lucky off.
Lucky stood his ground. George’s eyes went to the bulge in Lucky’s pants where the pistol was tucked away. He knew what was he was dealing with.
“You aren’t in trouble, Walsh. You aren’t being placed under arrest.”
“Then what are you gonna do to me if you know why I’m here?”
“All I’m gonna do is talk to you. Just talk.”
Lucky didn’t take a liking to the good cop routine. He didn’t go to Birmingham to talk with a cop. He came to Birmingham to talk to Laurel. To talk to Laurel and to get her and the baby to come back with him. The cop’s demeanor patronized Lucky and pissed him off.
“I didn’t come down here to shoot the shit with no cop. I wanna see my wife and baby girl.” Lucky blurted out confrontationally.
The animal in him was being backed into a corner. He wouldn’t let anything stand in his way.
“I’m sure you didn’t anticipate it, no. I’m Laurel’s step-daddy. I guess for the time being that I’m you’re father-in-law. Didn’t really think we’d be meeting like this. It’s been a bad situation for everyone.” George said scratching the back of his head.
“You gonna tell me where she is?”
“You want some pie?”
“Pie. Coffee and pie? I was about to head out to eat when you stepped to my front door. We can go talk about Laurel if you want to come along. I’m no threat to you, Walsh. I’m sure you don’t like cops-coming from where you’re coming from-but I’m just a man like any other that walks this earth. Now, come on. I know you ain’t bound to have eaten since you hopped that train in Nashville. What do you say?”
Lucky looked around, his face growing a little hot. He was trying to access the situation.
“Like I said, Walsh. Call me George.” George said interrupting Lucky.
They walked to George’s police cruiser. This was the first time Lucky had ever sat up front when it came to police. It felt unnatural to him. Nonetheless, it was happening.
Lucky found himself suddenly in a city he had never been in before in the company of a police officer who was being friendly with him rather than beating the hell out of him and tossing him in jail. He was astounded by the situation that was taking place. It was all very surreal. He found himself wondering why Laurel had never brought up George when she would talk about her family. In another situation, the two of them probably could have been friends.
A tired looking waitress brought George and Lucky cups of coffee while these thoughts raced through his head in the diner George brought him to.
“Laurel never mentioned her daddy was a cop.” Lucky said flatly. He had to break the ice somehow.
George stirred at his coffee. He looked up with a thoughtful look on his face.
“I married Laurel’s mother about four months ago. Around the time you went to jail,” George said.
“She came to stay with us after you got incarcerated.”
Lucky shook his head in acknowledgement.
“You want a cheeseburger or something?”
“I don’t have any money. I can’t even afford this coffee sitting in front of me.”
George chuckled and went back to stirring his coffee.
“You could afford that .38 Special you got tucked in your pants, though. Don’t worry. I’m paying.”
The waitress walked back to their table, hoping they would be ready with their order. She looked like she could go lay on one of the booths and go to sleep.
“Two cheeseburgers.” George said.
He looked over to at Lucky.
Lucky looked at George who was now looking at him. He knew about the gun and still he didn’t even seen surprised or worried. It didn’t make sense to him. Lucky didn’t know what this guy had up his sleeve.
George looked back to the sleepy eyed waitress.
“Anything else?” The waitress asked.
She sounded exasperated and looked like she would just as soon throw her apron down and walk out into traffic.
“Yeah, two slices of pie. Apple.” George said.
“I’m allergic to apples.” Lucky said a little uncomfortably.
“Oh,” George said.
“Better make it peach for the young man, Minerva.”
“Be up directly.” She said, unenthused.
She disappeared into the kitchen. The unhappy looked stayed on her face.
“You gonna arrest me?” Lucky asked once he was sure Minerva the waitress was out of earshot.
“If I was gonna arrest you I would have had you behind bars as soon as you stepped foot off that train, Walsh. I said I wanted to talk to you, and I don’t make a habit of going around lying.” George said without looking up from the coffee he was pointlessly stirring.
“So you ain’t gonna bust me on the gun?”
“Nope. Ain’t concerned with it.”
“You mean you ain’t concerned with me.”
George looked up from his coffee. He sighed.
“You ain’t using that gun on anyone, Walsh. But since you brought it up, mind telling me what the deal with it is?”
Lucky was taken back a little bit by this. The cop had sized him up and he wasn’t expecting it. He ran his fingers through his hair as he thought for a second.
“Well, Shit. I don’t guess I really know. Might have ran into some hobos on the way up here, hopping at stops along the way. Tramps ain’t always friendly. Guess one might have tried getting one over on me is all.”
“Can I ask you another question, Walsh?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“Is this how you plan on fixing things with Laurel?”
Lucky was taken back more than a little by this.
“I ain’t sure what you mean, George.”
“Yeah you are. Coming down here with a gun like that, trying to force you way back into her life. What would Frankie say if she grew up hearing how you came down here acting?”
Lucky could feel his face getting hot again. George snapped his fingers like he realized something.
“Mary Bell called down and told us that you were coming, in case you were gonna ask. I ain’t mad that you came or anything. I just want to know what was going through your mind.”
“I don’t know, okay?!” Lucky half shouted.
He looked around to see if he had startled anyone else taking their meal in the diner. It was surprising empty. It was probably the reason that George had decided for them to come here in the first place.
Lucky continued, minding the tone of his voice.
“I just want my family back. To see Frankie. To have her know who her daddy is. I want Laurel to know that I’m sorry for what I put her through.”
Lucky could feel tears falling down his face. He felt embarrassed. His face was a furnace.
George put his hand on Lucky’s shoulder. Lucky started running his hand through his hair nervously.
“I’m alright.” Lucky said. Although he wasn’t.
“Good. Get yourself together. Ease on down now.” George said.
His voice was calm and reassuring. It made Lucky feel at ease.
“Now, I’m going to give you some advice and I want you to take it. Its better advice than I think you’re going to get from anyone.” George said.
He paused for a second, then continued.
“I advise you to catch the first train you can find back to Nashville. I know this ain’t what you want but your way of fixing things here ain’t doing anyone any good.”
Lucky felt hate raise up in his head.
“You gonna arrest me if I don’t?” Lucky asked somewhat confrontationally.
George wasn’t buying into Lucky’s bravado. He kept his voice calm and collected. Lucky wasn’t the first punk he had to tangle with.
“What I will do is make sure my granddaughter and her mother are not put through any more than they already have. You have to understand that you made this mess, Walsh. You’ve got no one else to blame but yourself. You wanna know something though? This ain’t the end. You, and only you, can change this whole thing. This may not be looking too great for you right now, but if you handle this situation like a man, things can play out a whole lot better than how you plan to see it through.”
He stared at Lucky with his piercing dark eyes. It was like Lucky were being lectured by Mary Bell. The only difference was that this was more intimidating. He couldn’t help but listen to what this man was saying to him. He couldn’t afford not to.
“So, I just leave and forget about my family and never come back? That’s what I do?” Lucky asked, exasperated.
The waitress, Minerva, came over and set down their dinner. She looked over at Lucky.
“Refill?” She asked.
Lucky didn’t seem to hear her. His eyes stayed on George.
“He don’t mean to be rude,” George said to Minerva.
“He’s had a day out of sorts. He’ll take more coffee.”
She nodded blankly.
“Be back shorty with them pies. And a warm up on that coffee.” Minerva said.
Again she disappeared into the unknown territory of the kitchen. She could have floated of into another dimension for all Lucky was concerned. He was barely even aware of her existence past the point of her departing from their table.
“I was your age once, son. I know how you’re feeling. I had to learn that a man has to carry his ghosts, even if they weigh down on his soul. I had to learn this the hard way. I’m trying to offer you an easier solution.” George said, taking to pouring ketchup on his fries.
“So you just want me to leave?”
“I want you to think about the faults you have and how they’ve brought you to be sitting in this diner with me.”
“Shit, you’re asking me to punish myself.”
“Not at all, Walsh. I’m asking you to learn what you’re doing wrong.”
“So I just leave and never see them again?”
“Your mind can’t just run one way, son. Here’s what you do. You catch that train back to Nashville. You start with that. You go back to Nashville and work on what you’re not doing right in your life. You do that, and I’ll work on Laurel. If you go back to causing trouble in those streets in Nashville, I’ll hear about it.”
Minerva brought the slices of pies to the table. She had forgotten Lucky’s coffee. He didn’t take any notice of it.
“Are you everywhere at once?” Lucky asked.
“Nope. Got friends in Nashville. Friends who wear a badge.” George replied.
“You’ll talk to Laurel for me?”
“Only if you stay out of trouble.”
“And why would you be doing this for me?”
“Because I want to give you the chance that no one ever took the time to give me.”
Before George left and paid for their dinner, Lucky asked George one more question.
“Do you think she’ll have me back?”
George stood in the doorway of the diner for what seemed like a lifetime.
“If you change, I think you’re chances are good. Stay out of trouble out there, Walsh.”
After his estranged father-in-law left, Lucky stared out the window for a long time. He now had more on his mind than when he hopped that train in the yard at Union Station. He didn’t even notice that Minerva the waitress had walked up until she spoke.
“You wanting anything, else?”
He smiled briefly at her.
“I believe not.”
He looked back out the window into the city street. Autumn leaves in the trees outside that lined the sidewalk fluttered to and fro in the wind. A few blew of the trees and danced around in the street.
“Winter’s bound to be cold this year.” He said to no one in particular.
He was the only customer in the restaurant and by this time Minerva had gone back to the kitchen.
Animals, for the most part, remain what they are. Sometimes, they can be conditioned, but more often than not, they remain what they were born to be. Lucky kept his part of the deal with George, at least for a little while. He caught a train back to Nashville and took to working on himself.
George kept in regular contact with his friends in the Nashville police department. He was surprised that they kept getting back to him with no recorded arrests on file for Walsh T. Swaw. By Easter, Lucky was phoning Laurel on a regular basis and Frankie, who was now a toddler, would babble to her father while she sat in her mother’s lap during the phone calls.
Lucky did well for himself, as well as he could, at least. After a while, Laurel and Frankie moved in with him in his new apartment somewhere near downtown Nashville. Eventually, Lucky slowly regressed back to his roots. An animal can only wear the skin of a human for so long. It struggles to pretend to be something else until it no longer can keep up the charade.
It was January of the next year when Laurel officially filed for a divorce. She left the papers on the small kitchen table in the apartment for Lucky to find when he came home late at night from work. It would take another trip down to Birmingham to get the papers signed. This time, George wasn’t so friendly with Lucky, having him arrested. After Lucky got out of jail, George offered for him to either leave or to regret not doing so.
Lucky opted to stay. He stood his ground with his teeth bared. Lucky left Birmingham General Hospital a week later and departed from Birmingham for the last time on a bus fare paid for by Mary Bell.
He had ruined his chances at having a family with Laurel and he was now paying the price. Every day he swallowed a little bit of the acceptance. It wasn’t easy but he tried to deal what he had done none the less. Some men have to learn through living what mistakes are and aren’t worth repeating. Some men have to try a few time to get it right.
The truth we swallow can burn going down, but we take our doses fearlessly once we’ve finished stumbling around in the dark. One of the last things Laurel ever said to Lucky was that he was nobody’s fool, but he was nobody’s darling either. It would be years before he knew what she meant by that. What she meant was that men who can’t commit to the simplest things in life will go on to have trouble with committing to greater obstacles down the road.
Sure, Lucky was nobody’s fool. No one fucked with without retaliation on his part. But at the end of the day where did that really get him? He would be an old man lying awake at night before those notions really left an imprint on him. Only now, there was no point in catching any trains. What was done was done, and what was learned was learned. Everything has a price in life and you pay with all you have sometimes.
After the world war came to a close in 1945 and Mary Bell’s husband didn’t come back, Lucky (who was couch surfing at the time) came to live with Mary Bell in her efficiency apartment off of Little Hamilton Avenue. She claimed to only need help with the bills, but what she really wanted was to not be all by herself with her children. After most of the troops came home, a mass turnover in factories across America ensued leaving Mary Bell struggling to find work. A month after having her baby brother move in with her, she found work in a diner working late at night. The wages were shitty but the work was steady, and that was all she really needed.
Lucky would spend his evenings either driving around familiar neighborhoods with no particular destination or going past old haunts where the girls with their hair in curls would whistle and shout playful insults. He knew girls like these well. They reminded him of the arrogance that growing up on the East side of town had instill in him.
Girls from these neighborhoods knew the meaning of staying out late. Many had wrapped their arms around Lucky at some point in the past. Just as many, their legs. Encountering them now reminded him that he was everything that he never wanted to be.
In 1950, Lucky met his second wife in one of his familiar stomping grounds. By 1952 they would be married and have their first child together. Lucky rarely ever spoke about his daughter Frankie during those early days of his second marriage. His wife Carla Beth would only hear her name as Lucky whispered it in his sleep. His demons haunted his dreams.
It would be a year and a half before Lucky would tell his teenage wife he even had a child by another woman. In the late summer of 1952 when his first son was a few months old, Lucky received word that Laurel’s mother had passed away from a stroke. He thought hard about going down to pay his respects, but he had wised up by then, at least enough to know that nothing good would come of making another trip down to a city that had now grown a stigma with him.
Frankie Swaw would not see her father until she was fifteen years old. Lucky’s illegitimate daughter who he conceived with another woman while he was still married to Laurel would not see him until his death in 2010. Rose McGowen’s mother would not tell her about her father until the night after she had received the news of his death. She figured that Rose should see her father at least once in her life, even if it was at the end of it.
Rose’s mother and Laurel were in the same hospital room at the same time having daughters by the same man. This was the most awkward and ashamed that Lucky had ever felt in his life. It would be stigma that would plague him until he died. Even when Lucky became a minister in his forties and was purged of all his earthly sins by way of baptism, he still felt his demons eating at him.
Lucky’s son would be the only person he ever told his sins to. Lucky was an old man at this point and a few short years away from death. His son would keep the secret his father shared with him from his own family for a few years. Carla Beth would be told the truth by one of her daughters after Lucky’s death, who learned of it by eavesdropping on her father’s conversation with her brother. With dementia, the full truth would never fully be understood in Carla Beth’s diseased and crumbling mind.
Lucky’s son never believed in god, though Lucky sought absolution with him nonetheless. His son explained that if Lucky had really changed, he would make peace with the dark things he had done that haunted his memories. Whether he faced his demons or not, Lucky would still never tell his second wife the things he had done. He existed the rest of his life with the dark cloud forever raining in his mind.
A man can seek absolution, he can feel sorry for the things he has done, but some men never truly own up to their shortcomings. Some men grow from experiences while others run away from them. We’re all dying a little at a time, but it’s up to us if we go peacefully or not when the lights fade in the tunnel we walk.
The night before Lucky died, he had a dream that he was in that tobacco field in the town just outside Birmingham, the field with the pile of dead trees in it. The field that was as flat as Kansas. In this dream, he walked out the pile of dead trees and climbed to the top of them. He laid on top of Carcosa and watched the world pass, unable to do anything to change it.
Hundreds of suns and moons passed over the horizon as he laid catatonic in a state of suspended animation. He watched the world wither away and erode from his throne of purgatory. In his dream, he felt as if he were gasping for air in a vast sea of needles. He woke up in the hospital bed (where he was suffering from congestive heart failure) covered in sweat. His thoughts went to the life he had led for the most of that day, and when his family members came to visit, he was especially kind to them. He climbed down from the branches of the dead trees and disappeared into the light.
We all hop aboard a train at one point or another in our lives, sometimes more than once. But we deal with where those box cars that we stow away in take us. That never really changes. Sometimes, we’re nobody’s fools, but sometimes we’re nobody’s darlings either.
Nothing ever really changes about that either.
#Unreal #IsaacSwift #NobodysFool #Novella #AltLit #BirminghamAlabama #HistoricalFiction #QuailBellStories
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