It’s hard to explain how I can remember so vividly what a bright clear day it was in 1963, how crystalline the blue sky was above us as my daddy washed his old blue four-door sedan in the gravel driveway of our wood-shingled house on Nadine Street right off Heights Boulevard. The driveway ran the whole length of that old railroad house before it ended at a carport that had peeling white paint and weeds growing between the tire-tread marks under the frayed shingled roof. Daddy’s car was parked about halfway up the drive so that it was in the unobstructed sunlight; there was a big old tree in the neighbor’s front yard that gave shade to our front yard, so he parked the car farther up, closer to the carport so it would be fully exposed to the sun.
He had a bucket full of soapy, dirty water and a pile of old rags. I can still envision him from my three-year-old vantage point — so close to the ground looking up — his jeans and his svelte, sinewy arms with his paper pack of Camel cigarettes — the kind without filters — folded up in one sleeve of his V-neck t-shirt and the other sleeve rolled up tight so it would stay at his shoulder; that, of course, never lasted so he was forever rolling up his sleeve. Daddy was very lean and athletic in those days. The thick curly hair on his arms and hands was black and the hair on his head was jet black, slicked back with sweaty ringlets hanging in his profusely perspiring face. He didn’t seem to mind though. Daddy seemed very happy to be outside flinging dirty, soapy water all over his old beat-up car with the Texas sun beating down the way the Texas sun does nine months out of the year; it was the time of year when the steam would rise off the pavement in Houston, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. A lucky man.
When I’ve talked about my mother back in those days, the thing that I speak about first is how truly lovely she was, but my daddy didn’t win my mother’s girlish affections by being bashful and dull. He was gorgeous too. Besides all that jet-black intensity, Daddy had the most remarkable eyes: they were hazel with flecks of bronze that would catch light so that they appeared to turn gold: They looked as if they were dancing. His eyes were playful and mischievous, and he had the broadest yet most impish, engaging smile…as if everything in him smiled. The closest comparison I can draw are to those devilish still photos taken of James Dean grinning with a cigarette hanging loosely out of one side of his mouth — he always looked as if that cigarette had just appeared there, as if he’d had nothing to do with it, the “cool” just found him — right before he died; it may have been something of a gift that fans never saw James Dean grow old. The icon will always be more compelling than the man ever would have been. But James Dean had nothin’ on my daddy. Daddy made Montgomery Clift, at his best, look like an “also ran.” My daddy was one fine lookin’ hombre, and that is perhaps the only reason, in the end, that he landed with my momma.
So there I stood, just inside the peaceful, cool shade of that big old tree watching the first great crush of my life washing his old car. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I was all dressed up. Daddy had bought me a little red velvet dress with a fitted bodice and big puffy balloon sleeves and a tightly gathered skirt that flared out at the waist down to my knees; it had fine white eyelet lace trim around the neck and the bottom hem.
I only remember all that because Mother was so proud of the fact that he’d chosen such a perfect gift for me that, shortly after that glorious day I spent with my daddy, Mother had my picture taken in it. I was wearing my patent leather princess slippers and white socks that folded at the ankle and had more white lace for trim. Mother was almost spastic, standing there behind the photographer at the Sears in Northline Mall motioning to me, waving both arms, pointing to the exaggerated smile on her face, “Show yur daddy how much you love yur new dress!” It was a pretty dress.
My recall of the urgency in Momma’s shrill, high-pitched voice is visceral: “Smile, Rhonda Gayle! Smile!” she beseeched. So young, she still wanted to prove to everyone what an attentive mother she was. Approval writ large was so important to my mother.
The picture was around for years so I have the image etched clearly in my mind; for so many years, though, all I saw when I looked at it was that nasty fever blister that I had at the time. I was highly prone to fever blisters as a child and no child understands the concept of NOT picking a scab, so virtually every picture taken of me before I was thirty has me with a fever blister, and this one is no exception. I was even wearing heavy foundation in my high school senior photo to cover up a fever blister.
It was a very long time before I appreciated the significance of my father picking out that dress for Little Me. He just beamed when he beheld his little darling in that dress. It was the only gift he ever picked out for me that I — or rather, my mother — approved of and was age appropriate. Daddy embraced having a baby girl but he did not have a clue what to do with a teenage daughter, let alone an adult one. The last attempt he made to choose a gift for me himself was a tiny, travel-sized stuffed alligator: I was twenty-nine years old. That was one of the rare trips I made to Texas in the decade after I moved to New York City. The other more enduring gift he gave me were those amazing eyes of his.
“Thir’s nothin’ like a spankin’ clean warshed car when the sun hits it, Rhonda Gayle,” my daddy told me. I stood in that patch of grass watching my sweet father as a newly sentient little being with adoring eyes. I can still find that feeling of sheer, pure love I felt for that devilishly handsome man.
“Me and yur uncles used to spend hours under them ol’ pick-up trucks we fixed fir folks. We’d hang up that work light ‘n work under the hoods ‘a those ol’ cars all night,” he said.
Daddy stopped for a long, long minute like he’d slipped on a memory, then he looked right at me as if he were conversing with any other grown-up — as he always did when I was a child, even when it was a wildly inappropriate way to speak to a child — then he said, “That’s the only way in the world me ‘n yur Uncle Charles had ‘a makin’ any money out yonder in the country like we was. God, I hated it out thir. You ain’t ever gonna live like that, baby.”
It is entirely possible that I am not remembering that precisely as it occurred on that singular sunny day when I was barely three years old. My father, however, revisited that particular meme relentlessly over the years — the isolation of living so far away from actual civilized culture — that I can confidently paraphrase it succinctly for meaning. His professed loathing of the circumstances of his upbringing would confuse me because, over time, each progressive relocation he made took him back — deeper and deeper — into the place from whence he came. And over the years, the moves came faster and faster until he was back out in the country complaining about all the things he missed in the city. I had to get a whole lot older myself to fully appreciate the pull we all feel to return to our roots, to understand why we are who we are. The difference between me and my father is that I made a choice and he never realized he had a choice. My dad would never become one prone to blunt self-appraisal or personal accountability. That blind spot came at a cost. Just sayin’…
I think that must have been a great day for Daddy. I was still little, Baby Sister was a toddler, and my mother was beautiful. We had a nice little house and were getting by and everything must have finally seemed right. It must have been a very hopeful time for him.
Then came a shockwave in a bright, bright yellow convertible with the top down. Driving too fast to make the turn, the car swerved into the driveway and came to a screeching halt, spinning dirt and gravel into the street right underneath the shade tree. Daddy threw down his wet rags, swept me up in his arms and ran to meet the handsome rascal behind the wheel wearing the dark shades.
Daddy held me up in the air, “Charles this is my oldest, Rhonda Gayle. Gayle, this is yur Uncle Charles!”
I must have gotten shy as I often was as a small child. He said, “Say hello to yur uncle, Gayle.” I buried my head in Daddy’s sweaty shoulder. I would not speak to my uncle.
My father was beside himself with pride while Charles never took off those dark, wrap-around sunglasses, “Little Brother, put Rhonda Gayle in the car. I’ll take her for a spin in my car.”
Without a moment of reflection or hesitation, my father carried me around the car and sat me down in the passenger seat. That was back in the days before airbags or even seatbelts really were standard issue; as little ones, we stood up between our parents in the front seat of the car. I accompanied my uncle in his shockwave of yellow without so much as a seatbelt.
Daddy was giddy, smiling from ear to ear when he said, “Now, you be careful with my baby, Charles.” With that, my prodigal uncle shifted to reverse, hit the gas, and we were off.
My first memories of my long-absent uncle were of looking up from that passenger seat, seeing that self-satisfied smug grin on his face — in profile — as he drove me around the block or several blocks in his yellow convertible.
My memory of Charles faded away again and for another ten years. That sweet ride of his was “hot,” as in recently stolen. As it turned out, my uncle’s absence from my father’s life was owed to another in a series of his rehabilitative stints with the Texas Department of Corrections. My uncle’s first bid was in the juvenile facility before he graduated to big-boy criminality. He’d spent most of his life in and out of the “Walls Unit” in Huntsville, and so eager was he for the female form that he would not be out of prison for a month before he’d remarry, every single time. Just about the time he’d gotten bored with the new wife, he’d commit another felony, pretty much forcing her to divorce him from behind bars. In the end, my father’s brother was married six times and had, perhaps, a dozen kids, but don’t quote me on that.
Charles had an air of such imperviousness that it was hard to forget a first impression like that, even if I was a small child. I’ve been reminded more than once over the years that children are generally far more reliable judges of character than most adults, so it is not irrelevant or incidental that my first impression of my uncle came back to haunt me years later, and for the rest of my life. Even as a toddler my instinct had been to look away from my prodigal uncle and bury my face in my father’s shoulder. From the start Charles was a man I wanted nothing to do with and all the good reasons for a little one to feel that way would become achingly clear in time.
My father lionized his older brother as though he’d walked on water, even as he feared his judgment, and, I suspect, his wrath. In the end, his allegiance to his brother would cost my father unimaginably.
About the Author:
Gayle Leslie is a writer, political consultant, published author, actor, and policy wonk publishing extensively on Medium. She is a native Texan, graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Circle in the Square Theatre School in NYC. She wrote her serialized memoir, Dwelling in the Vast Divine Vol. 1 & Vol 2. You can follow on Twitter at @gayleleslie7