A Birthday in Creosote: Memoir

New Work

By Virgil Grandfield

On my brother Maxie’s fifth birthday, the big tow truck from the bank came to take our house away.

It was the same truck that had brought the dead soldier’s long, tin trailer to our wedge of borrowed land the year before. The truck had to drag the trailer like a heavy body in across the empty field to the south of us because our lot was otherwise hemmed in by things that could not be passed nor moved. To the west of us were giant, antebellum oak trees and a family of God-fearing neighbours named the Stansteads who lived in the old plantation house and had us over regularly to share meals and watch footage of burning helicopters and Cronkite reading the nightly body count, and to pray for the President. To the north were more and bigger oaks, and a pair of Texas Power & Light poles tarred with weeping creosote and feathered with insect hulls, the breezes animating their tattered chitin sails just enough to deceive each successive flotilla to the mire. Beyond the TP&L poles and perpendicular to our lot was a narrow, hard-top county road and beyond it were two-and-a-half strings of lazy barbed wire skirting the forlorn end of the National Guard airstrip where pilot sons of cattle kings and oil barons artfully buzzed the oaks and dodged the war playing out in every living room in the country except for the Baumgartner’s. Old Mr. Baumgartner called everybody “buggers” and said that TV was made for Gunsmoke and Andy Griffith, and if there was a God, Marshall Dillon would have let the mob lynch both Him and the President while he and Festus rode out and fetched our boys back home.

Mr. and Mrs. Baumgartner owned a small house converted from old slave quarters and a steamy vegetable garden and rustling corn patch, all of which formed our eastern boundary.  They also owned the grassy, sometimes sunny, sometimes sinister field stretching from our southern property line off towards an ancient and dark-timbered barn and beyond it to a mixed bosque of friendly and unfriendly woods. Most of the land in the neighbourhood, including the Baumgartners’ field, had once belonged to the old cotton plantation. In the century since Reconstruction, the land had given in to the root rot and had been invaded by mustang vines, feral longhorns and thorny mesquite shrubs, the lowliest and meanest of all Texas trees. Ever since we had lived in a sheepherder’s shed surrounded by mesquites out on the Edwards Plateau, and a girl at a neighbouring ranch had told me the little trees’ needles were poisonous and could kill you in two minutes, I had been dead terrified of them. Where the Baumgartners’ field met the southern line of our property there was a single one of these deadly mesquites, and to one side of this little rattlesnake of a tree had been the only way to bring in our new house, when we were finally able to get a mortgage for the mobile home being sold off by La Mancha county courthouse as a settlement to the dead soldier’s second family.

The bank manager at Del Rey Savings and Loans had understood that Dad was a Man of God who preached the Word and lived by faith. But, he had said the bank would just feel a lot better if he had some kind of regular job, as well, perhaps a job befitting a Godly man. Jesus was a carpenter as a young man and the Apostle Paul was a tent maker even through all the years he was a missionary. If Dad could get himself enrolled in the carpentry diploma and paid internship program at the county technical institute and also come up with a $500 down payment, he could have the loan for the mobile home.

Dad reckoned the plan a Godly one, so he asked his only surviving brother for the $500.  Uncle Ambrose wired the money from a Toronto bank. As soon as Dad showed proof of enrollment in the carpentry program, the bank manager approved the mortgage on the dead soldier’s mobile home. As a gesture of Godliness, the bank manager even offered the bank’s own repossession truck to tow our new home to a little strip of land which members of Brother Ewing’s church in town had bought and lent to us next to the plantation house out by the National Guard airstrip.

When the truck finally came on a wet late spring morning, the old red cotton mud caked the trailer’s wheels such that the long, tin mobile home dragged like a giant coffin on skids and left deep gashes across the Baumgartners’ field. The driver was only just barely able to dog track the trailer through the opening guarded by a fence post on the southwest corner and the scrawny mesquite tree at the centre of the property line. The sound of the mesquite needles rasping the corrugated sides of the trailer was like kittens climbing a chalkboard. Poisonous kittens, I thought. When the trailer was finally parked, the truck driver helped Dad block it up and wished us luck before driving off between the TP&L poles and out onto the hardtop running by the airfield.

Later that afternoon, some men from Brother Ewing’s church showed up with two pickup loads full of furniture that Mom had been gleaning dollar-by-dollar for months from second hand stores and auction barns.  After loading the furniture into the house, the men promised to return the next day to start digging a pit and lines for a septic system and a drain field which they surmised would have to run between the mesquite tree and the southeast fencepost out towards the Baumgartners’ field.  Before leaving, one of the churchmen said a prayer to bless our family in our new home.

After almost six years of raising kids in a tent or in corners of other peoples’ houses, Mom burst into a homemaking frenzy like an earth-sprung cicada marauding the summer.  She quickly filled the rooms along the haunted length of the trailer with clothes, bed stuffs and dishes from the Salvation Army.  The power, gas and water wouldn’t come for a few more days, but that night, she fried chicken in an electric frying pan hooked to a long cord run over from the old plantation house and cooked vegetables and rice on our camp stove.  She had me and Maxie light the kerosene lanterns and set the dishes out over a real table cloth, and when we all sat to eat around the new secondhand table, Dad had us hold hands and sing the doxology before he blessed the food and thanked God for our new home.  As soon as Dad was coming to the end of his prayer, Maxie chimed in: “And dear Jesus, please keep us safe from tornadoes and don’t make us ever have to leave our new house. Amen.”

Having our own table to eat at inspired Dad to make every blessing an ever bigger ritual than when we had eaten our meals at other people’s tables, or at campground picnic benches or on the floor of our tent home.  Now we were in a temple, and he was high priest.  Dad’s prayers became longer and he often started with readings of whole chapters of the Bible while the food on the table lost its heat.  As well as having us sing the doxology he also had us sing from the Psalms, and then would lead us off-key in rounds of the Hallelujah song, dragging our voices along with his for as long as the spirit moved him.  Never was any meal anywhere ever so blessed as at our table.  And at the end of every blessing, Maxie would throw in a few words for good measure about tornadoes and Jesus not making us leave our new house.

There was no living thing happier that our family had set roots amongst its own than the Baumgartner’s mesquite tree at our south property line.  This was because an hour or so after every thoroughly sanctified meal, the septic field running by the mesquite’s roots began to fill and run flush with the blessed effluence of eight Christian bottoms.  Within weeks of the beginning of this holy communion, the ophidian shrub put on a host of new buds and thorns.  Within months, this lowly viper of the arboreal world branched out to more than twice its size, and held its towering new limbs full of a lordly mane of leaves and crown of thorns through the summer and fall and almost until Christmas.

Dad stuck with the carpentry courses at the technical institute, but was released from the internship program because the foreman did not like to be preached at.  Dad seemed relieved to be fired and went out preaching twice as much, even if it meant just standing on a street corner with a bullhorn.  Dad never once passed around an offering plate, because a Man of God should not have to ask for money.  He would not apply for food stamps or welfare either, as that would show a lack of faith. “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love,” he would say at the supper table when we would get down to eating nothing but pancakes, twice a day and then only once a day.  And even though sometimes we got the power or the water cut off— like one time right in the middle of Mom filling a kettle to make some tea for an evangelist visiting from New Mexico— an offering from the faithful or a gift from family would come in the mail just in time for the mortgage payment, or at least within the extra month or two that the bank manager would give us.

One day early in the new year, Mom went down to make another just-in-time payment on our mortgage and asked the teller if there was any money left in our checking account.  “Well, yes,” said the teller.  “It looks like a transfer of five hundred dollars came in from Toronto, Canada last week.”  Mom said she thought that must be a mistake and when she came home and told Dad, he called Uncle Ambrose, who said he most certainly did not send another $500.  So, Dad went down to the bank to tell them they had made a mistake.  After arguing this point a few times, the teller half-closed her eyes and told Dad, “Our bank doesn’t make five hundred dollar mistakes. Just spend the money. It’s yours.”


Mom and Dad spent part of the $500 on an electric washing machine and put more than half the money towards advance mortgage payments. We used the rest for gas and food on an evangelizing trip to Arkansas and Louisiana. One night in Little Rock, me and Maxie saw a woman get stabbed to death outside of a halfway mission house. A few weeks later on Bourbon Street, we learned about the occult from a bar girl who Dad spent most of an afternoon trying to bring to Jesus. When the pretty, sandy-blonde woman drew pictures of pyramids with eyes on cocktail napkins, it made my insides and my pecker feel good. I always liked to watch someone draw.

When we got home, La Mancha county was coming out of winter, and there was a pile of mail in balloon-colored envelopes from the bank waiting for us over at the Stanstead’s house.  Apparently, the bank had made an error in their year-end accounting and someone had double-credited us on a receipt from Uncle Ambrose’ original deposit for our down payment.  The letters demanded immediate repayment of the $500.  The name at the bottom of the letters was different than usual because the week after we headed to Arkansas, the old bank manager had drowned while saving some black children from a flooded culvert over by the Sand Town housing projects.  The new manager of the bank was a close-clipped, egg-shaped loans officer whom the old manager had originally overruled to approve our mortgage.  Mom and Dad explained over-and-over that they hadn’t spent one penny of the money until the clerk had told them it was absolutely ours and that they should just spend it.  The new manager refused to add the $500 to the back end of the mortgage and said that all payments we had paid ahead on our mortgage in our absence had been automatically diverted to pay the disputed balance.  As such, he considered us to be three months in arrears on the mortgage and if we could not come up with the outstanding balance within the week, the bank would repossess the trailer.  “The US of A may be off the gold standard now,” the new manager said, “but that don’t make Del Ray Savings and Loans no Golden Window.  No free passes on my watch, thank you kindly.”

In the weeks of our fighting and pleading for mercy from the bank, Mom tried to keep us quiet and clear of Dad while he moved darkly from the telephone in the kitchen to the floor of their bedroom, where he would pray face down so long the shag of the carpet would imprint his forehead like a little crown of thorns.  Most of us instinctively knew to be quiet or be whipped beyond what any other parents in La Mancha county might find reasonable or even legal.

The country outside our windows in these weeks was still winter brown, except some greening bull grass along the edges and the inner scoop of the tracks made by our trailer wheels in the Baumgartner’s field when our home was dragged on that wet spring morning the year before. The only other thing that seemed to be flourishing was that freakish mesquite tree, which was already growing its limbs again, exponentially and far and wide enough to scratch at the wall right above the fold-down bed in the end room where we usually all piled up every night in a tangle of arms, elbows, legs, panties, diapers, training pants and loose underwear to hear Dad read a Bible story. It was in these weeks that Dad knelt by that little fold-down couch bed, and instead of a regular bedtime story, told us in great detail our first story of Hell and the Lake of Fire. Because, as he explained, I was by then at the age where God no longer gives free passes, I crawled terrified and weeping out of the couch bed and knelt beside my Dad’s huge, warm body and repeated the salvation prayer after him and thanked Jesus for saving me from Hell. All the rest of that night and many nights after, I lay on the fold-down bed between Maxie and little Johnny and listened to that mesquite tree satanically scratching the wall above my head and wondered if I really was saved. On one of those nights, I dreamt of a dead soldier flying me over the Lake of Fire in a burning helicopter and telling me he wanted his house back or he would take me all the way down into Hell. As we flew over screaming people swimming in spewing lava pools, and Walter Cronkite read off the names of the damned, I could hear the claws of flying demons scratching at the helicopter window. In the morning at breakfast, Maxie said I was saying “poison, poison,” in my sleep all night. Dad scowled across the table at me like I was a sinner never saved.

The bank sent the big tow truck on the Tuesday morning after Easter.  The truck’s driver had thin legs and a big middle that stretched out the bib of his Dickie coveralls, and he wore a Del Rey S&L ball cap with the beak pulled low over his eyes. “I got to take away this here trailer, ma’am,” the driver said when Mom stepped down the little iron and wood planked steps of the trailer to talk with him. She was pregnant again.

Dad emerged from the bedroom and went outside. Mom’s eyes were glassy when she turned around to tell him what the driver had said. She was biting her lips to keep from crying as she spoke. Maxie stepped down past Dad and walked up to the truck driver, “It’s my birthday today,” he said.  “I’m turning five.”

Dad asked to see the papers the man said were from the bank and the county court. The rest of us kids poured out of the trailer to watch, gauging the distance required to see the action without being singled out for an arbitrary whipping. Mom and Dad went in and out of the house a few times to make phone calls. We heard Dad’s voice getting louder and louder on the calls.

The Stansteads came trotting over after Jinny had run and told them someone was trying to take our house away, and Mrs. Stanstead was shouting at the truck driver before she had even come around the front of the trailer. “What’s the matter with you?  You got no right to take these people’s home!”

Mr. and Mrs. Baumgartner also came over and stood in the middle of our yard where the truck driver was up to his elbows in kids.  “I’m sorry, folks, but I got an order notarized by the county court. Maybe it’s a bad egg, but I gotta fry it or git fried.”

Dad came out of the house again and started speaking in tongues and praying in the loud, angry way of a man who is being poked hard in the ribs. Mrs. Stanstead kept shouting at the driver until Mom and Mrs. Baumgartner pulled her away. Maxie went around the circle and asked everyone if they were coming to his birthday party. “We’re having cake.”

Dad’s praying got still louder and then he started up toward the hardtop with his hands in the air and then marched back and forth between the TP&L pole with his arms up-stretched, speaking in tongues and calling down heaven’s angels to protect the home of a faithful servant of the Lord. The truck driver turned to watch the performance for a moment, and when he turned back around, old Mr. Baumgartner was standing square in front of him.

“One a’ you buggers tore up my field the last time,” said the old man. “I guess y’all better find another way to get that trailer home outta here.”

“There ain’t no other way,” said the driver, his face colouring in a way that makes a man look like he’s still got a mama. “Anyway, I got a temporary order of right-of-way from the county clerk,” the man said, pulling a sheaf of papers and a folded land and titles map from under his wing.

Mr. Baumgartner took the papers and the map that the driver pushed at him. “Hmm,” he said.  “Uh huh.  Nope, you can’t go out thataway. This here order says none of my estate features is to be damaged in the process of the repossession.”

“What estate features?” said the driver, searching the field.

“Well, for one, my shade tree back there,” said Mr. Baumgartner, pointing to the mesquite tree behind our trailer. “No way to git that trailer out without taking out my best shade tree, too.”

“Shade tree?  Who the hell has a mesquite for a shade tree?”

“I the hell do,” said Mr. Baumgartner. “It’s a goddam feature.”

The driver and the old man looked hard in each other’s eyes, then the driver broke his gaze and pushed his ball cap up to scratch his head. When he turned around to size up the impossible angle of exit up at the hardtop again, the driver saw Dad stretched long and flat out on the edge of the county road with his face planted between the gravel and asphalt, praying down angels or fire or anything from heaven to save our home. Mr. Stanstead walked up to the road and stooped over Dad and touched his shoulder and called him “Brother” and tried to get him to get up and go down to see the county commissioner with him. “Preachers ‘n’ stool pigeons,” muttered Mr. Baumgartner, and spit and shuffled back towards his house. “Buggers!”

Little Maxie tugged at the driver’s Dickies. “Hey, mister man. You coming to my birthday?  I’m turning five. We’re having cake.  I don’t like tornadoes.”

The driver brushed off Maxie, fetched a long sledgehammer from behind the truck cab and walked around and knocked the blocks out from under the trailer. He used the sledge to loosen the arm over the trailer’s hitch, cranked up the tongue, pulled the truck back under the receiver and lowered the hitch, coupled and locked in the ball. He then rummaged in the side toolboxes under the truck bed and pulled out a large McCulloch and an oil can.  He knelt to oil the chain and mashed the primer bulb a few times and then stood up and started toward the other end of our house. While he walked down the west length of the mobile home and worked the chainsaw’s pull start, a screen door slapped shut on the little house to the east of our trailer, and Mr. Baumgartner came quick-marching out across his yard, managing a lawn chair and a six pack of Budweiser with one arm and a double barreled, side-by-side ten-gauge shotgun with the other. When the driver got to the end of our trailer, old man Baumgartner was already sitting in his lawn chair under the mesquite tree, cracking open a can of Bud with one hand while the other drew the ten-gauge up over his knees. Me and Maxie came around the east corner of the trailer at the same instant the driver came around the west corner.

The driver stopped dead in his tracks, his big McCulloch sputtering and jerking to off. “What you aimin’ to do?” he said, backpedalling to the lee of the trailer’s corner.  “I’m just a worker.”

“I’m bird huntin’,” said Mr. Baumgartner.  “Nothing like a can a’ Bud and a nice shade tree for shootin’ pigeons.” He smiled and winked at me and Maxie at our corner of the trailer.

“That’s no goddam shade tree, an’ you know it!” said the driver from around his corner.

Mr. Baumgartner took a long first swig and sighing swallow of the Budweiser. “Ain’t this a good enough shade tree, boys?” he said, looking up and admiring the ever-lengthening reaches of the blessed mesquite. “Can you say, Amen?”

“The hell with you!” the driver shouted over his shoulder, scuttling back towards the tow truck. “We’ll get the Sheriff down here!”

“Son,” the old man called after him, “you tell the bank and the sheriff this trailer home ain’t goin’ nowhere. Specially not on this little bugger’s birthday!”

Mr. Stanstead and Dad drove over to the county courthouse, and Mom made a little birthday party picnic for the rest of us on a blanket spread over the fertile and thorn-littered ground under the mesquite tree. Mr. Baumgartner told me there wasn’t anything poisonous about mesquite trees, and to prove it, stuck himself with a thorn he pulled down from a happy, well-fed bough, and then opened another Budweiser. While I waited at least two minutes for the old man to die and probably go to Hell because of the beer, Maxie took a piece of birthday cake on a paper plate to the truck driver and stayed and talked to him the whole time he was uncoupling the bank’s truck from our house. When the big tow truck pulled back out onto the hard top, a piece of gravel spit from its spinning left rear tire and knocked a chunk of creosote and Mayfly wing from one of the TP&L poles.


  1. Lucy Mei
    Posted September 30, 2011 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Superbly written. This is the kind of story that tugs on the heart and then sets up residence.

  2. Posted September 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    excellent and compelling work well told.

  3. Posted September 26, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    What a fine short story by Virgil Grandfield! A pleasure from start to finish. Wistful, funny, deeply touching, richly rendered and beautifully paced. Written by a master storyteller. It makes you long for more.
    Daniela Herold M.A.

  4. Allan Wilson
    Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Excellent “story”, although I assume it’s true, in the mode of the best non-fiction.
    It has the depth of an Alice Munro short story: vibrant characters, struggling in situations of one type of poverty or another. While the man of God acts like a total fool with his children near starving, the beer drinking, swearing shotgun totin’ neighbour is the hero. That’s what we need neighbours for.

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Virgil Grandfield

Virgil Grandfield grew up in Texas as one of 13 children of an evangelist father from Saskatchewan and miracle working mother from Alberta. In 2007, Virgil discovered large-scale human trafficking in Red Cross reconstruction operations in Aceh, Indonesia, and impractically blew the whistle on his employers. He recently started a fair trade Indonesian batik business. He travels around the country in a van and hopes his writing will one day pay enough for food and a place to sleep.