Grandma Bonnie had been divorced for more than a decade, but in actuality, she’d been alone much longer than that. Most of her life, you could argue. I never met the man she married so young. The one whom she gave three strong sons, and the bulk of her youthful years. The one who left her to raise those same unruly three boys on her own. The one who fought with her, screamed at her, made her feel weak. I traded a letter with him before his death a few years ago, during a bit of an identity quest of my own, but his paranoid words were a spidery chicken-scratch, scrawled in the wrinkled margins of the letter he sent back to me, and it ended with the only question I needed to hear to end my brief search for answers.
“What is it you want from me?”
I kept the brief correspondence to myself for a while, telling only my sister, whom I trusted to keep from disturbing the brittle surface of my father’s family history.
“He’s a piece of s***,” my father would roar if I asked anything about my real grandfather. “That’s all you need to know about him.”
My mother was much more practical in sharing what she knew, although even her expertise was flimsy, worn at the edges. Terrible husband. Abusive. To Bonnie and the boys. Spent some time in prison for much of my father’s childhood. Came back into the picture when Pops was in high school. Things unraveled until they divorced a handful of years later. Keeping the facts simple made it even less tolerable.
“He just wasn’t there, honey,” she told me. “He was a very nice man to me when your father and I were dating. But he just lied all the time. Losing money gambling. Other women. Losing job after job. Lied to your dad about everything. And he was just never around. Sold Indian reservation land as a real estate agent. That’s what got him in big trouble. That’s what got him sent to prison. That was a federal thing.” I thought about the kind of man who would behave this way. The real bitch of it (beyond the poor treatment of Bonnie, Pops, and his brothers), the real stinging spear in my gut was that a good portion of his heritage, diffused as it was passed down to me, of course, was South Dakota Sioux.
It’s never a goal of mine to smear the name of a man I never met, so I won’t go too far into his existence. That’s definitely another slice of life. Probably another loaf altogether. But his presence, or lack thereof, is important for many reasons in this story going forward, so we may hear from him again if there’s time and occasion.
Grandma met Howard through her sister, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s husband, Perry. Dorothy was lively in some of the same ways as my grandmother. There were the same furious, violent hugs.
“Nearly took me off my damn feet the last time I saw her,” Pops laughs.
Her banter with him was much the same as Bonnie’s. She punctuated her sentences with the same jolting gestures, her face sprinkled with a roadmap of deep laugh lines. And though they may have been twins with their smallish frames, spotless slacks, sparkly shirts, and poofs of white hair, Dorothy was somehow softer. Her teasing banter with Pops was much the same as Grandma. But instead of the swift jab in the ribs, she would pull you into a hug, the suffocating strength of which shouldn’t have been possible from her tiny figure. She radiated love for my father, having lived in the apartment above him and Bonnie (one of the many homes my father claimed growing up) until his senior year in high school. That was the year Perry and Dorothy picked up and moved everything south to Hardee, Arkansas. 1972. Little did they know it was their first step to crossing paths with a colorfully dressed hillbilly named Howard Estes.
Dorothy’s husband was a retired roofer and successful property owner during his time in Illinois. Where Dorothy shouldered a carefree attitude, Perry was a stickler. A no-nonsense man with forearms like ship ropes, which were often folded across his chest. He was an imposing man, thick from a life of physical work, harboring athletic roots underneath the bulk.
“Built like a brick shit-house,” Pops would say.
It may seem strange that I stop here to spend some time on Perry, and I apologize for the digression, but it’ll make sense in the end, and I promise to actually get back to Howard and my grandmother soon. Bear with me.
I would learn during my high school years that Perry had been a running back during his prep years, recruited by Notre Dame to play football in the 1940s, but, like many young men of the time, joined the military instead. His work ethic had already been forged way back then, when he purposely ran through sand to keep himself fast and strong and agile. Other times, he would run through the thick forest behind his house as fast as he possibly could, dodging the closely grouped trees and branches, taking random routes to ensure he never got too comfortable, or lazy. By the time I met him, he wore suspenders for every occasion, and though his body had swelled in some areas and waned in others, his old eyes were sharp and steely like a tack hammer. If you watched him close, you could feel him disassembling the things around him as he took in his surroundings. Houses. Structures. Cars. People. His glare seemed to take them apart, examine them for weaknesses, and then rebuild them. Perry’s responses were measured and clean like the angles of the roofs he spent decades repairing. A serious round face, taut lips, I never dared challenge him, even with a joke, and found myself fumbling for words whenever he darted questions at me, which was rare.
There were layers to this man, though, as I would learn when we started making summer visits to Arkansas. His and Dorothy’s beautiful stone house, which flaunted an impeccably laid stone wall and enormous matching flower box, was his doing. Sure, he had help. But he designed and built the majority of it himself. And all those stones, large and small, had been dug right out of the field of Arkansas earth by Perry himself, an amazing feat in its own right. The home was a single story with clean lines. One end had a floor to ceiling windowed entryway that would have made Frank Lloyd Wright proud. Across the white gravel driveway, about 30 feet from the front door was a cinder block building, which could have been confused for an air raid bunker, if Perry himself hadn’t decorated the front with hand-painted rolling murals of the surrounding Arkansas landscape, both flora and fauna. It didn’t quite fit. This barrel of a man, carefully painting detailed scenes on the side of a building. I was intrigued.
Strangely enough, but perhaps not for those who know me, art became my connection to him. Art and I go back a long way. Colored pencils for birthdays. A mountain of sketch pads over the years. A few terrible paintings. If you didn’t know what to purchase me for a gift, art supplies were a safe bet. That’s often how I spent the 10 hour drive to visit Grandma and Howard, sketching superheroes, landscapes, comic strip characters, and any other thing that was relevant at the time in my life.
Walking down the steps into Perry’s man cave was like walking right into his head. A large, professional grade pool table sat in the middle of the room, the brain center. It was a framework of rules and symmetry, physics and geometry, a place where things made sense. Around the perimeter were the various lobes of his many talents. The walls organized expertly with tools and trinkets and cans of used paint. Empty jars of JIF peanut butter were bolted to the ceiling. One only needed to twist the jar to pull it down and inspect the numerous, specific-sized fasteners and meticulously organized odds and ends. Then there were the paintings. He’d taken to selling paintings in retirement, and there were canvases all over the walls, some finished, signed with the swooping letters of his name, some still in progress. Animals. Landscapes. Bridges. Several would end up in my childhood home over the years, free of charge, a shock to my father.
“Can’t believe he gave you that painting,” my father shook his head at my mother on the way home afterward. “Perry’s tighter than a gnat’s ass.”
When I talked with Pops on the phone this past weekend, trying to recall how Howard and Perry had met, I suggested perhaps the golf course. “No chance,” Pops responded. “I mean, Perry would never have played golf, simply because he wouldn’t give up the $1.50 it cost when you hit one in the lake. Old bastard woulda stayed out there all night huntin’ for one ball because he woulda refused to give up a buck.”
It was true. Hugging Perry must have been like hugging a porcupine, although I never found out. Everything about his manner suggested an abrasive personality. Critical. Short-tempered. Grumpy. These are the words my father uses to describe him. But this prickly porcupine became was a curious little bird every time he saw me sketching something in the corner, and he would walk over and peek over the spirals, something that could have been confused for a grin poking at his mouth. A little nod. He even sent me home with a small painting one year. For free, if you can believe it.
There was only one person who could manage to fracture Perry’s hardened exterior. Pierce the armor. Just one person who could get him to drop his guard, even if it was brief.
“I don’t know what the hell that guy thought he was doin,” Howard would bark inside Perry’s pool hall, imitating one of his sour friend’s rants from a few weeks back. Everyone would giggle. “I oughta take my damn coat and the go the hell home.” His cadence would be spot on, thornish like Perry’s, accentuating the mild curses, Howard’s face exaggerating that familiar grumpy scowl. He wouldn’t be able to contain himself long, the bass of his chuckles melting through the mockery into full-fledged hilarity. And Perry would cave. A snort or two. Slap his knee and shake his head, pressing his lips tight to hide his smirk.
That was just Howard’s way. One of his most likable personality traits was the ability to get people to see the humor in their own austerity. Cut through the seriousness with fun, the absurd with amusement. Laughter, could heal all.