“Does Prez Prado perform just for you?”
That’s what the Scarecrow said that afternoon in Warner’s Music Store, and Patty blushed the way all fourteen-year-olds did in 1958 San Diego. She wasn’t familiar with Navy guys. Her dad had worn an Army uniform in the war ⸺she barely remembered it the day he got home. As soon as he came through the front door, he went to his bedroom, took it off, stuffed in his olive drab duffle bag, and hid it away in the attic. Now, here was this six-foot skinny guy wearing dark blue bell-bottom trousers and a matching jumper, trying to act manly. He must have heard Mr. Warner say, “Hi, Patty,” when she came in.
“Don’t you have a ship to sink, or something?” she said, and walked past him to the counter, three 45 rpm records in hand. She took her change purse from her pocketbook and counted out sixty cents for her carefully selected-for-danceability tunes. At the Hop. Great Balls of Fire. The Stroll.
“Thank-you, Miss Patty,” Mr. Warner said. “Hey there, Sailor, have you got Great Balls of Fire? Patty’s not the only young customer liking ol’ Jerry Lee.”
“He’s cool,” somebody said and Patty caught the scent of Old Spice aftershave.
She turned around then because the voice wasn’t the same as the jive talker with the corny pick-up line. The guy standing behind her was no Scarecrow either, and he was at least twenty.
“I knew Gerry Lee in Memphis when he first came up from Lou-zeanna,” Old Spice continued.
“You know his wife, too?” Warner said.
“Met her a few times. She sure had me fooled.”
It was like the men were talking about two different things at once the way Mr. Warner winked when he asked about the song, and the way eyebrows went up when he asked about Jerry’s new wife, Myra Gale.
“You talk like she’s not a woman or something,” Patty said.
By that time Scarecrow had joined them at the counter. When neither Warner nor Old Spice said anything, he remarked, “All them hill-billies marry young. Ain’t no big deal.”
“How old is she?” Patty said.
“Ask your Mama,” Mr. Warner said.
Patty trained her eyes on Scarecrow. “How old? Forty?” He held up both and hands, spreading his fingers wide, and then just three fingers of one hand. She shoved her coin purse into her pocketbook, picked up her records, and headed for the door. “That’s disgusting,” she mumbled just loud enough for them all to hear. She’d stop by Holland’s drugstore, sneak a peek at parent-forbidden Photoplay Magazine, and read the Hollywood gossip. If Mr. Holland was busy counting pills, she might get to read a few pages of Hollywood Vice. That’s where the real information was ⸺and where the best pictures were.
She wasn’t disappointed. Jerry Lee, piano destroying rock musician par excellance, had married his thirteen-yea-old cousin, which meant, if her Jr. High social hygiene teacher was to be believed, she’d done the nasty on their wedding night.
“You mean my parents do it?” she’d asked in the gender-segregated class, and Mrs. Sedgewick nodded a yes. Did she know her daddy had a fake leg and a medal, Patty wondered?
“But probably not often considering you’re a teenager and the youngest,” Mrs. Sedgewick said, and the girls all laughed like she’d made a joke.
It never occurred to Patty that her parents locked their bedroom door for a reason when they took an occasional afternoon nap. She phoned her married sister to confirm the devastating news. “For the longest time, they called you the ‘come home safe baby’ until you turned two. Then you were just another “oops” baby,” Carol said. “But, you kept them together after he was all shot up. They could have made the biggest mistake of their lives if it wasn’t for you. I thank you for that even if they don’t realize it.”
For days afterwards she she’d replayed the music store conversation in her head. Women younger than she and older than she were having sex, and the Scarecrow’s comment about it not being a big deal made her feel stupid, hygiene class or not. Myra Gale sure didn’t look thirteen and neither did she, so maybe it was time to grow up.
Funny that she was thinking those thoughts when the doorbell rang that fateful afternoon. “See who it is, Patty,” her mother called from the kitchen.
It was the government: two Army officers, a social worker, and a cop.
While the men talked to her mother in the living room, Patty and Miss White talked in the kitchen. “My father never touched me anywhere!” Patty answered to her despicable question.
“We have to investigate, Dear”
“I’ll let your mother explain.”
“No! You explain. Or I’m not answering any more questions.”
“Don’t be disrespectful now …”
“Then don’t treat me like a child now. According to Lou-zeanna, I’m old enough to be married.” Miss. White was staring at her, and she stared back.
“There’s been a complaint by a German woman. She says your father raped her while he was in the Army. She was twelve at the time,” Miss White said. Patty saw the veins in her neck swell.
“I don’t believe it. My father wouldn’t do something like that. Get out and take your lies with you, you old hag!”
Miss White left, to tattle to the cop probably, and Patty knew she had to run. Adults get huffy when you cross them, that she knew. She also knew enough to slam the back door before creeping silently up the kitchen stairs all the way to the attic. Her mother wouldn’t tell them there’d once been servants in her Grandmother’s house who used the back door.
She heard voices outside. Maybe they were looking for her, or maybe her mother was sending them packing; she was the boss of the house. Patty crawled to the window and saw the cop put her father in handcuffs and pack him into a squad car while her mother fought like hell to get to him, screaming Johnny! Johnny! but the Army guys held her back. She ducked down when Miss White looked up at the window, and fell over her dad’s duffle bag, her hand landing hard on a protruding nail head in the floor.
“Shit, damn!” she said. But she didn’t yell for help as she watched the flesh below her thumb turned purple, then red as blood ran down her wrist. She grabbed at a yellowed handkerchief inside the bag and wrapped her hand … then pulled out a hat, a coat …
Deeper inside she found boots, and a pistol and a box of bullets, and her mother’s letters, and in between two of them, a picture of young woman in a tight blue satin dress standing in front of a bar. Was she twelve? Or twenty? She couldn’t tell. Maybe her dad couldn’t either.
Patty thought about Scarecrow thinking she was “old enough.” For what? Sex? Destroying evidence, or knowing evidence when she saw it?
On the back of the photo were the words: Johan, mit Liebe. She didn’t know what it meant, but she knew women don’t give their rapists photos of themselves smiling. No, her Daddy hadn’t raped anybody. They’d been in love. Like Jerry Lee and Myra.
From her perch, Patty saw the yard had emptied. Her Mama was standing alone, watching the drive-way dust settle as the cars disappeared west, like John Wayne riding off into the sunset. This is why she had been born. Until now, and forever after, no matter how long she lived on the earth, this is the day she fulfilled her life’s purpose. Like a man coming home from war or a bride sayin’ I do, she would look back on this day, hear herself scream these words: Mama! Mama, come quick, I’ve found it! Daddy weren’t lyin’ to nobody and I can prove it.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over two-hundred print and on-line journals. Her how-to book, Writing Beyond the Self; How to Write Creative Non-fiction that Gets Published was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2018. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for Graduate Creative Non-fiction in 2011, and a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not Your Color. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time ⸺when she’s not watching classic movies and eating chocolate.