I wrote this about six months ago when everything was different, and yet somehow the same…
My metamorphosis occurred as a processual jettisoning of family. There is the family I was born to, and the family I have been living with more recently. It is uncannily similar how these two families resemble and envelop one another if examined from the outside-- as if “environment,” or “trauma,” were as significant as all the experts say in handing down addictions, disappointment, and hurt feelings.
It is also one of those stories that is best told in a Waffle House late at night to your worst student. To the student that makes you want to quit teaching all together. So I did. The Waffle House on Rainbow Drive is located right next to the Hampton Inn where I was staying that night, and when I pulled up I saw his black GMC Truck with the chrome sign on the back window that read: “Locally Hated.” It was somewhat true as I was a local and I hated the kid. Most people did, but it was a bit grandiose to say many in the town knew who he even was. But his arrogance was strangely familiar too.
He just stared at me when I walked through the door. His mouth locked in a kind of gape. I sat down with him as we were the only ones there. Months before I had told both his parents that I would take him turkey hunting to try and reach him. I did not mean it really. I had too few turkeys to waste on punks, and I felt as if he was a lost cause. I based this on how his mother allows him to check out every time I am teaching to spoil him with fast food; he always comes back but sleeps through all the lectures. He also makes rebel yells in arbitrary moments like walking into the gymnasium lecture hall. Class was held there as a function of keeping people apart and maintaining social distance.
Now this kid is slyly smiling at me from across the Waffle House. I walk over without hesitation because at the moment my life is in shambles. The waiter is a ginger beard that has whiskers protruding from underneath his mask. He seems to have a problem with my student before I ever sit down. This was not really surprising as the boy makes trouble all around him. “Can I get you something to drink?” Gingerbeard says to me. “Coke is fine.” I responded.
The kid looks at me with an incredulous smile and says, “What are you even doing here Coach?” I was his golf coach ordinarily, but for the last few months I had been practicing with the team less because my child was acting out in day care. Thus I began to skip out on practices I was not really being paid to lead in the first place. I was also the boy’s history teacher, but he usually slept, skipped, or farted his way through my classes. “I guess it is a God thing.” I said without blinking.
The Christian school I teach at is very restrictive in most of the learning environments, but I have been trying to be real with the kids for the last three years, and the chaotic lack of discipline that emerged in my students as a result of my laissez faire approach has proved more than I can handle. Everyday I endure disrespect and the perpetual crossing of boundaries by teenagers.
Christ was my model for patience, but I had lost patience with the world around me, and I blamed this student--Locally Hated. My unraveling was because of this student’s apathy toward development and as a result my life seemed to be spiraling out of control. Locally Hated had forced nine teachers to quit over the years with his antics. After his constant farting and checking out to go get lunch the whole class decided they deserved this too. Everyday for weeks my twenty two history students would check out from school and bring back hot-and-ready- Little Caesars pizza. Then on days that they didn’t get pizza I often put a historical movie on to generate discussion. That is when they started throwing tater tots around the gym classroom at other students. A kid busted his head open on some gym equipment once because he was climbing over to reach a wall jack to plug in his phone. The principal came in to the gym to investigate the slip-and-fall and walked in during the klan scene of Oh brother Where Art Thou? This is all to say that I have tried any number of strategies to engage the students, but I still was exhausted from teaching during Covid and this particular group of delinquent kids led by my Waffle House dinner companion.
One Ethiopian immigrant student said, “What? It’s the klan, this is history.” Then he went back to his iPhone video game.
Locally Hated is their leader but as he ate the bacon from his all star meal I could not help but consider what would happen to my own son if I abandoned him and my wife like I planned to do just hours earlier. I was staying in the hotel next to the Waffle House because I was avoiding a family intervention into my mental health.
I met my wife in the hospital while my brother was dying from cirrhosis after drinking like every day was an ESPN Gameday. I drink. Blair was a drunk, and he died. The heartache resides in all of us. That is, it resides in the family I was born into. But there are carry over points to my new family. The one I made.
So now, like a complete dumbass I have rented a room at the Hampton Inn. That will show her I thought. I needed desperately to talk to someone. My friend, Skylar, had a board meeting at the Gadsden Country Club, and so I thought I would tell him about my problems since he wanted to meet for a drink after the meeting. I sat on the balcony at the club sipping a beer when I see my Dad’s best friend Wes, and he is on the phone. Just minutes earlier an ambulance came for an elder patron of the club who had fainted in the bar, so I took my beer outside. That is when I heard Wes say, “I am not upstairs but I can go look for him upstairs if you like.” “Shit!” I thought. Now they want to confront me in my place of refuge.” I had been hiding out at the country club since Covid began a year ago.
These club friends naturally grew to appreciate me for my willingness to read my stories after a few beverages at the dining table. I was so starved for an audience that I read stories to pest control business owners, Ford dealers, medical supply salesmen, and executive recruiters. I don’t do it anymore since I have Substack readers. I could have worked for any of them, but it was engrained in my self esteem that all I could do was teach. And now I was met by the stark reality that I cannot even do this. When the principal asked me what was wrong with me about a month ago I told her that my heart was not in teaching anymore. She asked me to finish out the year, and I began thinking about starting a job working for a friend as a head hunter.
It would have been a fine new job that paid more than teaching, but the more I played golf with the potential new boss, the more I realized that he was a cheating scoundrel who placed balls whenever he couldn't find his original ball and charged himself no penalty stroke. I beat him so badly one day that I had acquired ten skins at a dollar a skin. It wasn't enough money to care about so I told him to tip the bag boy. “That’s why I like you Carp. You are such a nice guy.” He walked inside after saying that, and I looked at the bag boy and said, “If he doesn't give you ten dollars let me know, ok?” He agreed and of course the next time I saw him I asked. “No sir, he never tips.” So now frustrated from teaching in an evangelical school with delinquent students I have been misled about a new career that was going to purportedly solve my financial problems, and free me from dependence on my father’s dole. I was not able to support my life without my trust fund and my father knew it.
I began telling Locally Hated about what happened between my father and me when two of his friends sat down. I made them all put their phones away. Snap chat spies everywhere was my fear, but they immediately consented acknowledging the gravity of running into Locally Hated’s teacher in an empty waffle house at midnight.
My sister is a yogi who dyes granny underwear with avocados and teaches adjunct art in Baltimore. The other night she was cooking dinner at my father’s home. My Dad says to me that “we need to go survey the farm in Walnut Grove.” I responded tiredly, “Why don’t we ask Dude to survey it?”
I had a feeling this would piss my seventy year old father off. He lives on a road that has two men named Scott living next door to each other. There is “Crazy Scott” and “Outlaw Scott.” Crazy Scott brought over expired packets of bologna and Daniel Defoe books. He wore camouflage fatigues some of the time. Other times he cross dressed. One time Outlaw Scott was telling a story on Crazy Scott. Outlaw said, “Yeah, I seen him walking alongside the mountain in a leotard and skirt. I hollered at him for a second to check on him. But I told him it might give people the wrong idea if I gave him a ride with that skirt he was wearing.” Crazy Scott sometimes would show up on my Dad’s porch and want to talk. Some that knew him well said he was dangerous.
Outlaw Scott seemed like the dangerous one to me with his automatic rifle collection, and those suppressors that muffle gunfire noises. He always kept a cigarette on his lips and his doberman pinchers would chase after his 90s model green Tahoe. He kept good care of my father’s trails on Hensley Mountain, which were the anchor of the town’ s view shed.
“I think my mistake was mentioning what he needed to do with my family’s Guntersville lake house.” I said to Locally Hated. For months he and I were talking to my friend Paul about listing the family compound, since we could no longer afford the property taxes into the indefinite future and the sisters wanted out of the compound because of his purchase of the secret farm with family money, but in order to squeeze the most value out of it he needed a land planner to re-subdivide the lots. After a turkey hunt Paul told me that it had been a month and Dad had not called the land planner. It was like a spark in a sawmill when I suggested he do this. He erupted: “Well, Fuck you! You Fuck waad! You ruined everything!” It seemed really harsh that I could have “ruined everything” with that simple suggestion.
What he meant was that he had never forgiven me for making what was supposed to be a dabbling with documentary film into a publicly screened event. I shared the film known as “Secret Farm” with my cousin Torie on a trip years ago to Colorado. I may have always intended to do this because I wasted no time pulling out my lap top for the screening of my father dodging questions about why the farm in West Etowah County Alabama was a secret. Torie told her mother and she found the property through the public record. This is how I ruined my father. I failed to keep his fifteen year secret any longer.
The secret farm existed in the imagination of a Gadsden, Alabama family. Its terrain was real, but its outlaws were mostly imagined. The farm went by many names: the secret farm, Wetowah (for West Etowah), and to my father’s sisters simply, “that damned place.” My father gave his siblings a moniker that came to register in the minds of his listeners a certain antipathy towards his own blood-- “the Sisters.” It may sound harmless, but by not using their Christian names he was effectively sublimating their identities as something other than human beings. The derisive term “Sisters” was used to convey to my sister, Amanda, and me, that he was meeting with them in what they all three called a “family meeting.” These meetings were generally Monday afternoon browbeating events for my father. The problem for these three was that they were only bound by land parcels, because it certainly was not love that kept these three individuals acting as kinfolk. Then again maybe love is all that kept them together.
Then I almost killed him. Five months prior to my near patricidal lunge at my seventy year old father, he was up late talking to Outlaw Scott on his porch. His rear end was braced on the rail and he suddenly fainted, flipping over the rail and according to outlaw Scott: “landing on his neck.” Outlaw Scott was in conversation with him when he fell. Doctors determined he had a compression fracture in his back. Months later he is yelling at me: “Fuck you, you fuck waad, you ruined everything.” Two days passed without speaking to him and then I came home from work to find his vehicle in my driveway. He, my sister, and mother were all waiting on me to arrive because my boy had a fever and they wanted to have a family meeting with me. Of course my mother was excluded from this meeting, or at least was supposed to be. Then the fight escalated when my father would not apologize for dog cussing me.
He stood over me with a hunch back saying, “You’re a Fuck Waad! Fuck Waad!” I asked him to leave several times saying, “I want you to go.” And also I said, “Just go.” This went on for about thirty minutes before I stood up off the couch and grabbed my 5 foot 10, now 5 foot 8, father by the collar and I threw him to the leather couch in my dining room. He had lost a few inches since his back had been broken off his porch fall with Outlaw Scott. Still, I looked at him for what seemed an eternity, and he stared back finally saying, “John, your sister is punching you in the head.” I let go and he stood up hopping mad, and saying, “your’e crazy.” I shoved him out the door with my sister squealing about something, and I called him a “loser” for good measure.
“My sister had left a knot on my right temple, and my father had said he wanted my boat out of his shop, and that I had ruined everything. He meant that I was the reason he was being compelled to sell the family lake compound by the sisters. It was my fault that they knew about the Secret Farm. Maybe I am a fuck waad.”
Locally Hated stared back at me in disbelief at the story I just unfurled. He said, “So you are here over a land dispute?” “Im here because my wife conspired with my mom and sister to have an intervention with me about my drinking.” I said. I felt like I was talking to myself from twenty years ago. I could say anything if I thought he would listen. Unfortunately, I knew this student. I knew it would be a wasted effort. So I gave up. I did go home to my wife and son though. The meeting with Locally Hated was like God saying don't do this to your child. I heard Him then drove myself home.