An Orphan Walks into a Bar
I’m celebrating my eighteenth birthday soon. That’s when they ordinarily give you the boot from Christ’s Compassion Home and School where I’ve lived my whole life. I won’t be welcome there anymore, because today I’ve been places I’m not supposed to be: a bar, my mother’s house, and the Hamblen County lock-up.
I told the jailor I was guilty. He said, “After twenty years serving and protecting, you’re the first one.” He told me to sit in here “get my story straight” until the detectives came back to the station.
This started about a week ago when I got a letter. Pastor Shane brought it from the front office. At first, I was excited. I hardly know anybody outside the Home and I haven’t gotten much mail ever. It was a Valentine. No return address. I thought I had a secret admirer—hopefully Nicole Abelson, the girl from foster care who’s learning pedicures in the vocational school here. But no such luck.
The card read:
14 February 2016
You don’t know me, but I’m your aunt. When you were a baby, your mama left you at my house. It was supposed to be a weekender while she went to Nashville with her no-count boyfriend. A month later, I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her, so I took you to the orphanage. I knew they’d raise you right. Sorry I didn’t do it myself, but I had triplets in diapers and no job or money. I should’ve knocked and gone through proper channels, but I didn’t. I left you on the doorstep one summer night with a note pinned to your onesie saying, “My mama died and there’s no one to care for me. My name is Burton.” I made sure there wasn’t no rain forecasted. I checked the ground for snakes. I took you a couple of counties over so the authorities didn’t find me. Burton ain’t your name, but it’s what your mama called you. I found out you were still there through a lady at my church who does social work at the Home. She don’t know what I done, but she told me they had a nice boy your age named Burton who was training in HVAC at the VoTech.
If you want to find your mama, she legally changed her name to Liz Taylor last year. Not Elizabeth. Just Liz. Your mama got fascinated with her in high school when they showed us National Velvet on account of they both had dark hair and loved horses. Before that, she was Arlene. The way she lives her life, Lizard would be a better name. She lives in Hamblen County. She ain’t right in the head. Never was. I got no idea who your daddy is. She probably don’t either.
Personally, I don’t recommend you have anything to do with her.
Forgive me for what I done. I know you’re better off. Happy Valentine’s Day. And happy birthday.
There was a hundred-dollar bill in the envelope. I’d never seen one before.
I didn’t have no idea what to do, so I talked to Pastor Shane. He asked me did I want to meet my mother or not. At the time, I didn’t know. He thought I should at least once and find out my family medical history. I told him I’d let him know when I made my mind up.
But I didn’t do that. The idea of meeting my mama started eating away at me like a maggot in the bottom of trash can. Finally, I did what anyone else would. I asked Google. If you put Liz Taylor, Morristown, Tennessee in a search engine, you get twelve people. Ten of them were Elizabeth Taylor. Only two were Liz. One was eighty-eight years old. So, that left Liz Taylor, age thirty-eight, on Spout Springs Road. Her phone number was right there on White Pages. All night long, I lay awake resisting the urge to call her, but today, I up and did it.
A man answered the phone. When I asked to speak to Liz Taylor, he said, “Just so you know, we are completely out right now. Don’t you be yelling or cussing her, you scabber. You got that?”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
The lady who came to the phone sounded like she’d been asleep even though it was the time VoTech lets out—2 P.M. I wondered if she was terminally ill. I could barely hear her.
“Who’s this?” she whispered.
I explained I was Burton, I lived at the orphanage and thought she could be my mother. There was a fair period of silence. “Say that again,” she said, her voice more audible.
I told her about the letter. Then my eardrums about burst. She screamed into the phone, “Richard. Get the hell over here. This freak says he’s my son.” I heard the phone drop and Liz chanting, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
I was gonna hang up, but the man’s voice bellowed, “I told you not to bother her, moron! What the hell did you say to her?”
My voice shook, but I told him my story. I ended with, “I thought my mama was dead.”
Ends up the guy who wanted other people to be polite didn’t possess any telephone manners. He hollered, “Goddamit, Liz! Sounds like that do-gooder sister of yours has spilled the damn beans to the whole wide world. “He paused, then asked, “You got proof, Burton?”
“No sir,” I said. “Just a letter.”
“You gonna press charges?” Richard said, adding “On the only mama you got?”
I said, “I want to meet her to get my medical background.”
I could hear Liz Taylor in the background, still shouting OMG. Good thing she doesn’t live where I do. She’d be washing dishes for a month.
“You got a job?” Richard had calmed down. “Can you help your mother? Her finances are in the shitter. She needs medications and home repairs. She ain’t got a pot to piss in.”
“I’m learning the HVAC trade,” I said. “I got a job afternoons and Saturdays working for Millman’s Heat and Air. I carry stuff and he teaches me. I make minimum wage, but I got a hundred-dollar bill in the letter.”
“How old are you?”
“You’re seventeen, right?” he asked.
“Got a driver’s license?”
“Yes, sir. But no car. Sometimes they let me drive the van here.”
I heard Richard snigger. “Sounds good. Tell them you’re gonna assist some folks in need.” Richard roared again without covering the mouthpiece. “Put some clothes on, Liz, and shut the fuck up. He just wants to know his medical history. He’s gonna help us out with some cash. He’s going to VoTech for, can-you-believe-it, air conditioning! And he’s a minor.” He gave me an address to meet them: 3600 Andrew Johnson Highway. He shrieked, “Your mama sure is proud of you.” I wondered if Liz and Richard were hard of hearing.
I knew this was a bad idea, but it didn’t stop me. I didn’t ask for the van. I didn’t want Pastor Shane to know where I was. I banked on forgiveness being easier than permission. I snuck the keys and left a note saying I was going to get medication for some poor people.
When I pulled into the parking lot full of beat-up cars and trucks on Andrew Johnson Highway, the sign read The Hangout.
I smelled cigarettes before I opened the door and saw pool tables through the window. There was a woman marching in circles around one, bending over with a pool cue, and then never taking a shot. That woman was Liz Taylor. There were a dozen folks at the bar at three in the afternoon. The bartender, a middle-aged victim of East Tennessee biscuits, burgeoned over the waistband of her blue jeans. She eyed me. I was afraid, she’d ask to see I.D. But she turned away and continued drying beer glasses like a genie might come out.
As I looked around the bar for my mother, a thin man with a shaggy facial hair left his table. His T-shirt read, “There’s a name for people without beards—WOMEN.” He looked to be mid-twenties. He held his hand out. “You Burton?”
I shook it, saying, “Yes, sir.”
He looked over at the woman spiraling the pool table, now twirling the pool cue like a baton. “Liz, get your ass over here and meet your son.”
She spun the pool stick into the air, missing it. It clattered to the concrete floor. Then she meandered over. Liz Taylor looked more like she was fifty than thirty-eight. She was a wild-eyed skeleton with a cheap black wig. They don’t let us watch much TV at the Home, but her dress looked like something off Turner Classic Movies. She had a blemish problem with scars and scabs on her face. I couldn’t help staring into her eyes. They were purple in the middle, brown on the edges. I finally realized they were contacts.
I hate to admit it, but I was disappointed that this was my mama.
She grabbed me by the face and pulled my cheeks. Her smile showed a mouthful of rotten teeth. “You don’t look like me,” she said and walked back to the pool table.
Richard broke the silence. “You see your mama ain’t well.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I whispered.
“Bout half the time, she thinks she’s Liz Taylor. My name ain’t Richard, but she likes to call me that. Get it, Burton? She don’t make a lick a sense. The health department says she’s bipolar.”
“Is she seeing a doctor?” I asked.
Richard’s face contorted. “Dammit, son. I’m trying to take care of her. Neither of us got jobs or health insurance. Liz has allergies and asthma that aggravates her mental state. I got a list here of medicine she needs and pharmacies you can find them. They’re over-the- counter. I’d appreciate it if you’d get them.
I looked down at the list:
Sudafed – Food City
Meijer 12-hour decongestant – CVS pharmacy
Publix Supermarket 12 hr. decongestant – Publix
Walphed–D – Walgreen’s
Zefrex- D – Kroger
“Get two packs each. I calculated it, and that’s not more than $100.”
I gave him a hard look-over. It was obvious they were poor. “Are you my half-brother?” I asked.
Richard cackled. He finally calmed down enough to say, “Hell, no. I’m Liz Taylor’s husband.”
My mouth dropped open.
He grinned and I saw he could use a dentist, too. “Burton, let’s say I married your mama for her cooking.” Then he asked me to get them some freon from the HVAC shop, because their freezer wasn’t working. I told him I might not have the money. He said, “Borrow it.” He gave me an address on Spout Springs Road for delivery.
By the time I got to all the stores and took some Freon from Mr. Millman’s storage, it was late afternoon. Thought I’d never find the house which was a rundown rancher outside city limits where the road hadn’t seen an asphalt crew in decades. I walked to the door and knocked. No answer. There was a picture window with a large crack in it. I saw lights in the kitchen. I turned the handle and the door opened. The house was so cold it made my teeth chatter. In dim light, I couldn’t make out much, but a couch and a propane tank in the floor. Maybe they were using it for heat. I walked toward the kitchen and boy was it weird. It looked like a science experiment. They had blenders and beakers and big brown bottles all over the place. Richard was standing there hooking up clear hoses when I startled him.
“Whoa! Don’t they teach you to knock back at that orphanage?
“I did,” I said, handing over the bags of medicine the metal Freon container.
“Your mama’s asleep,” he explained.
I nodded. “It’s cold in here. Y’all got a furnace? I don’t have a license, but I’d be glad to take a look.”
He shook his head. “It’s over on the other side of the house. Pilot light’s out. I got someone coming to see to it.” He grabbed me by the upper arm and marched me to the front door. “We’ll call you, Burton. Your mama can’t sleep if anyone’s talking. Thanks for the meds,” he said. “And the Freon. Now we can make some ice.”
The door closed and I heard him bust a gut laughing.
It was dark now. I got in the van knowing I’d be in trouble when I got to the Home. As I drove toward Morristown, I thought how pitiful Liz and Richard were. And I felt terrible. Despite all I learned about Christian charity, I had no intention of ever seeing them again. When I reached Interstate 40, I thought, “The least you can do, if you’re going to forsake your own mother is show compassion and go fix that pilot light.” I was in so much trouble another hour of travel time wouldn’t matter.
I circled back to Spout Springs Road. This time I saw both Richard and Liz in the kitchen. They hadn’t noticed me. I took the flashlight and a butane lighter, walking over to the far side of the house. The furnace was old, but Mr. Millman and I see that plenty. The galvanized cover was already off like someone had already been out there looking. I relit the pilot. And that’s when it happened. A loud noise that made my ears ring and rocked the ground I stood on. I ran to the front of the house. The kitchen was blown away and the house ablaze. Richard came running out screaming with a fiery beard and coveralls. I didn’t see mama.
Now here I sit in a jail cell. I stole a van and freon, I did HVAC work with no license and blew up a house and two lost souls… all in one day.
When the detectives come back, I’ll get one phone call. I’m having trouble coming up with the name of anyone who’ll answer.