Boiled Peanuts with the Undead by Amy Penne

"Foggy Day Fishing" by Mickey Strider

“Foggy Day Fishing” by Mickey Strider

It’s hard to resent a dad who came back from the dead. How am I supposed to begrudge him for the adultery and botched business endeavors, divorce and the myriad holes in the wall, punched through by angry, brain-damaged fists? He’s undead. Pre-accident Dad was a character straight out of Mad Men. All schmaltz and shmooze. Make the offers. Sleep with the client’s wife. Seal the deal. Pre-accident Dad was a 1976 dad. Bicentennial and beer-gutted, holding me over his head like a beach ball in the family photo from Ormond Beach, Florida. But the post-accident dad, the bandaged, emaciated, post-traumatic brain injury dad was comatose, then mute, then violent from the seizures. Who is accountable for the damage, for Mom’s addictions and eventual death-by-vodka? When memory loss comes as a result of Alzheimer’s, as it did for my grandmother, it’s tragic. We study it and print purple ribbons to support awareness. You earn Oscars for portraying people losing their minds later in life. When memory loss comes from the coma you went into because you were attacked by an angry man in Jackson, Mississippi, in the late ‘70’s, you don’t get a ribbon.

After his business trip accident in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1978, my father came home after over two months in a coma, deaf and mute. He crept through our split-level suburban home like an extra in Night of the Living Dead. Mom came back hollowed out and dislocated. Her cheeks were sunken and celery green; her hair was grainy, homespun. She became a zombie too, nearly three months of staring at an estranged man in a coma, a man who used to be her husband, who played hearts on Fridays, backgammon on Saturdays, who danced with her to the Motown Christmas Album every December, the man who took her breath away in high school, that man got sucked into the void. This undead man took her life away.

The summer before the accident was an outdoor summer, summer of 1977, the year Punk broke and Elvis died. I was ten in 1977, in love with Luke Skywalker and faraway moons. Mama and Daddy were still happy, or at least still together. It was the last summer we took our sky blue boat out to Lake Allatoona, blaring Atlanta’s Z-93 on our deluxe Radio Shack transistor radio. We’d go fishing early Saturday mornings; the pungent scent of minnows at the bait shop awaited us at the crack of dawn. Daddy baited my hooks because I wouldn’t stab the minnows, though I was mesmerized watching them swim around in our Styrofoam beer cooler. “Early Saturdays are the best time to catch bass,” he’d say. I don’t know if that’s true, but lazy days on the boat were worth stabbing smelly minnows. When Daddy’d catch a bass or some other unidentified fish, we celebrated with Coke and the boiled peanuts we scored on the drive up to the lake.

Boiled peanuts in my neck of the woods weren’t trendy tourist treats for the Disney-bound drivers heading south towards Orlando. Now when folks drive through the Peach State, they pick up Cajun-spiced, Thai-spiced, or wasabi-flavored boiled peanuts. Boiled peanuts ain’t Thai-spiced. They’re boiled to a pulp in a heavy, black, hollowed-out oil drum by a drunk guy behind a trailer on the edge of the drunk guy’s cousin’s hilly red-clay property, heading up toward Lake Allatoona. And you eat them out of a plain paper bag that eventually disintegrates from the peanuts’ sultry heat. You chase them with Coke or Miller Lite, depending on time of day. Charred and beyond salty, they slide down your throat and explode the savory taste buds on the backside of your tongue. They don’t save well; you eat the entire bag while you’re floating around the lake, fishing, and listening to a crackly Radio Shack transistor obsessed with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.

When Daddy came back from Jackson in spring of 1978, we lost everything. The ghosts in Mississippi had stripped us of gainful employment and sobriety. He’d gone to meet some associates in January of that year. A cold winter by Southern standards. I wore my blue wool coat with black velour lapels while standing at the bus stop every morning, waiting to ride to Mrs. Ambrose’s fifth-grade class. She was kind while my parents and grandparents stayed in Mississippi, dealing with the hole in my dad’s head from the fall. The friends who took me in, lifelong family friends, were gentle with me and even tried coaching me on what to expect when my new dad came home, the back-from-the-dead one. He’d be different, they said. “He won’t be your dad anymore. You’ll have to be patient,” they said.

Those first months after he came home are like lost basement tapes. Time stood still but unrecorded time marked only by visits to the hospital following nightly seizures that left Dad trembling on the floor, carried out by ambulance drivers. There were angry phone calls from my grandfather to lawyers and ghosts in Mississippi. I was moved from my childhood bedroom, a room dominated by pink floral wallpaper and pink satin ribbon-trimmed curtains, across the hall from my parents’ room to the basement, a pre-teen heaven, a flight of stairs away from the nightly screaming and crying and drinking.

A full unrecorded year expired as I entertained my only child fantasies downstairs in the basement; I performed concerts and dance recitals to imagined audiences while upstairs my parents navigated a volatile terrain. Over a year after the accident, they returned to Mississippi for a trial.

Mom was packing make-up in her embossed Estee Lauder case to take on the trip, make-up she used to cover the sleepless bags lining her pale face. I sat on the gold, shag carpeted steps outside the bathroom and stared into her vacant eyes as she lined them in charcoal gray. I gathered the courage to ask questions I had avoided for over a year. “Why is there a trial? Is Daddy in trouble?” I asked. I was obsessed with boys and birthday parties and I hadn’t bothered them for details beyond the crumbs they threw my way. The original story was that he was in a hotel accident and fell. Then he was mugged and left for dead by an anonymous attacker. The story shape-shifted over time, details emerging like new shoots on the bottom of our redbud tree.

Mama sighed. Putting down her hairbrush and picking up a red Dixie cup full of vodka mixed with sweet tea, she responded, “You really wanna know?” She took a deadpan drag of her Winston Lights.

“Yea.” I was scared, felt like I wanted to throw up.

“Your daddy wasn’t in a hotel accident or mugged by some random guy. He was attacked by a man named Ed. Your father was in a room at the Holiday Inn and was chased out by this Ed guy. Chased to the parking garage, we think, hit with something. The police think it was a tire iron. This guy hit him on the head and your dad either jumped off the third floor of the parking garage or this guy threw your daddy off the edge. Police aren’t sure because no one saw it.” She took another sip, another drag. “Or no one claimed to see it.”

“So, this Ed guy’s in jail? Why do you have to go?” I asked.

“No. Ed is not in jail. Your grandpa is launching a lawsuit against the hotel because they had inadequate security. And we’re suing the guy, Ed, in what’s called a civil suit because our lawyer doesn’t think we can criminally prosecute him,” she said.

My heart sank into my left toe.

“But he beat Daddy up. Why isn’t he in jail?” It seemed obvious to push on that one.

“Daddy wasn’t alone in the hotel room. Daddy was with a business associate named Rita. With red hair.” My mother paused there. “Ed is her husband. He’s an ex-con. Done jail time already for assault and battery.” Sip. Drag.

Mom was gearing up for her courtroom role as the jilted victim of adultery. The bathroom became her green room; she lingered in it for hours, putting on make-up and drinking from her stash of Smirnoff’s hidden in the red make-up case stuffed behind the guest towels in the bathroom closet.

The look on my mother’s sallow face–a look burdened with adultery that had turned violent and permanent–erased all the happy smiles from Easters and Christmases filmed by my dad on Super 8. What color would she come home from Jackson this time?

“But why are you going?” I asked.

“It’s hard to explain. I have to be there. For lots of reasons. I’ll have to testify to the damage Ed did to your dad. I have to tell the jury what he was like before and what it’s like now, living with him. His temper. . . .” She didn’t have to say more.

Before my dad had the crap knocked out of him by an ex-con named Ed after sleeping with his wife, Rita-with-red-hair, we had a rich life. Daddy made good money, enough for us to own a sleek black Lincoln Continental, a GMC truck, and a sky blue speedboat. My mom enjoyed decorating the house in a trendy Spanish theme, complete with Spanish Armada helmets for living room lamps and a faux Spanish coat of arms, gingerly hung on our dark paneled walls, centered, over the red and gold paisley sofa. For its moment in the late 70’s, our Catalan-inspired split-level house was in vogue.

My parents spent a couple of weeks in Jackson at the trial reliving my dad’s adultery and assault. As usual, they told me nothing. Nothing came of the trial until much later, over fifteen years later when my father was awarded some damages from the lawsuit. Within a few months, he lost all of that money to some shyster who scammed him in a fraudulent investment scheme involving computers.

My parents’ marriage collapsed after two unrecorded years under the weight of adultery and anger, even though Mom tried to stick it out past the expiration date. Secret divorce discussions were underway around my thirteenth birthday in May of 1980. To maintain a sense of normalcy, and to give me distractions, Mom was teaching me to cook Sunday night suppers. That summer, I was given charge over the rump roast in the oven and fresh Italian green beans simmering on the stove. I was working out the lyrics and moves to Fame in my moldy basement room when I heard a crash upstairs.  I found my dad pulling his fist out of the paneling next to our faux Spanish coat of arms. He was enraged, howling expletives about something, or nothing. Likely as not, he had lost his keys. So he slammed his fist into the wall.

Mom yelled from her bathroom for me to check on the roast and make sure the beans weren’t boiling over. Seeing my dad yank his fist out of the wall, I rolled my eyes and marched to the kitchen.

“Why the hell did you just roll your eyes at me?” he asked. It took my dad over a year to fully get his speech back after the accident, but when he did, it wasn’t genteel.

“I didn’t. I’m just checking the beans.”

“You did. You little shit,” he murmured as he began cornering me in front of the oven.

“No, Daddy, I didn’t. Move back. I gotta check the roast for Mama.”

My dad pushed me hard against our wall oven, its ceramic door heating up the base of my neck. He mumbled some threat about my eye-rolling and pushed me firmly against the hot oven, kicking my adolescent hormones into full tilt. I shoved my arm down, rifling through the junk drawer under the oven with my left hand. The muscles of my dad’s forearm pressing on my larynx, I felt for the contours of the ice pick. Clasping my fingers around it with a death grip, I thrust it at my dad’s face, aiming it three inches from his right eye. I imagined myself stabbing out the eyes that screwed Rita-with-red-hair, the eyes that took away our boat, the Lincoln, the transistor radio, and Saturday afternoon boiled peanuts. Maybe a lobotomy from an ice pick would bring back card games on Friday nights and our Motown Christmas album family dance parties. Maybe it would at least end the screaming and nightly seizures. Maybe it was even justified.

Our miniature poodle barked, responding to the spaniel mix that lived on the other side of the back yard fence. Daddy released his grip. I dropped the ice pick and ran downstairs to my room, slamming the doors behind me praying he wouldn’t follow. He didn’t. I hid, crouched in the back of the makeshift closet, leaving the beans, the roast and my father’s anger simmering upstairs.

An hour passed. Mama called me up for dinner. The hole in the wall was now covered by the Spanish coat of arms, hanging crooked, forcing it a good five inches off center above the paisley sofa. Dinner was silent. Daddy’s rage was forgotten–unobserved. Had it even really happened or was it a moment sucked up by the black hole in his head? Everything after that, the divorce, his thirty-six years of living a Willy Lomanesque life as a generic box store sales clerk, my mother’s second marriage and subsequent death-by-vodka, my adolescence, everything dissolved into the black hole of Daddy’s memory loss.

Since my dad doesn’t remember I wanted to stab his eye out in our galley kitchen, and he doesn’t remember Rita-with-red-hair, or any of the other Ritas he screwed while married to my mom, or the coma, or much about Ed, who beat him with a tire iron and threw him over the third floor of a parking garage, or just when my mom started drinking, did any of that happen? Is that dad dead?

The dad I’ve got now, the old one, the half-deaf one, the one I can’t even hate because he’s defective, plays backgammon like a pro and plucks out the same Chuck Berry guitar riffs he recalls from his teenaged years. He has musical memory, game memory. He constructs memories of our early life together as a family. Some of them may even be real.

Daddy still loves boiled peanuts. So when I’m home in Atlanta to visit, I drive the ten-mile, kudzu-infested back road up towards Lake Allatoona in search of them, the real ones, slow-steamed in a hollowed-out drum. They’re hard to find now because the chipotle-flavored are more popular at Publix. But there’s still a guy who sells some near the renovated bait shop. We hurry through the bag because the steam’s disintegrating it as we slurp the juices out of each shell. He might remember this salted communion from the blackened hulls of peanuts as we edge towards a new phase of father-daughter relations, incubated over thirty-five years of made-up memories. The father-daughter standoff in our galley kitchen during the divorce while the beans were simmering exists only in my unforgiven memory, not his. For him, there’s just these peanuts. Just now.


amy penne

Amy Penne

Amy Penne earned her PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and works as Associate Professor of Humanities at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. Amy’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the KYSO Flash Anthology Embodied Effigies, Mouth, The Drunken Odyssey Podcast, and in Creative Nonfiction’s upcoming collection, Oh Baby! True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love (Oct. 2015). Links to other published pieces and information can be found at www.thepensivepenne.com.

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3 replies »

  1. Devastating though subdued. You didn’t over dramatize the emotions. The repetition of certain phrases or words instead of becoming redundant gave it a ballad intensity. Love the imagery of the boiled peanuts. A great read.

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  2. Oh, Amy. Your piece hit a true chord for me. That vibration when you get the perfect pitch…We are formed like Play-Doh as a child, and as an adolescent in the confines of the family household. Boiled Peanuts with the Undead is written with such grit and precision. I understand the duality of the relationship with our parents~ write on—

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