A visit to the South to meet my father’s family and visit his final resting place; or, more Loaded Stories.
I spent my forty-third birthday with a strange, unfamiliar family—my own.
It wasn’t small, this new-to-me family. At one point during the week-long visit to Alabama, my aunt Mildred, an industrious, assertive woman in her late 60s, hosted a large dinner party at her affluent home. Aunt Mille guessed 29 family members were in attendance: my father’s other brothers and sisters, with their spouses; cousins and their spouses; their kids and stepkids. This was only a section of the family, as others lived in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and then my mother’s native Connecticut, which was how the Southern connection was originally made back in the tumultuous Vietnam era, when one of my aunts met and married a Connecticut soldier who was training at nearby Ft. Benning, Georgia. I made a quip about name tags. Aunt Millie’s eyes lit up and she almost instantaneously produced a thick packet of stickers ala a speed-dating mixer or high school reunion. They were quickly put to use, amid smirks and wisecracks, yet while acknowledging the underlying practicality of the matter. Still, since the stickers didn’t include more useful orientating information like type of “kin” or parent/stepparent (my three uncles had at least two marriages each), I was fairly disoriented in the rooms of unfamiliar yet not unusual-looking faces, Southern accents at varying levels of comprehensibility, SEC college sports apparel.
It was my first visit to the state of my birth since I was two. While my father’s siblings remembered me, I had no memory of them, or Alabama itself. All my cousins knew of me, the son of an uncle they couldn’t remember, shot to death in 1975, but we had never met, and I knew little about their lives. Everyone was friendly, good-naturedly ribbing each other and their spouses. I was the guest, a privileged stranger. That’s not to say I felt comfortable: I usually get uneasy around larger crowds, nevermind a family crowd where everyone knows one another’s stories all too well. Furthermore, I felt different. Prior to the dinner of home-cooked dumplings, boiled peanuts, mac and cheese, casserole, and corn on the cob, there was Grace, an extended, highly detailed Baptist blessing that was about as opposite to my current life as the blazing mid-August humid heat or the absence of a refreshing pint of beer. I was a long way from San Francisco.
This trip was overdue, to state it lightly, but it was also fraught with a deeper sort of unease than merely the unfamiliar or unknown, the inevitable cultural and political differences that make Alabama seem much further away than my mom’s native Connecticut, where we had lived for a time and I knew somewhat. On a basic level, it was intimidating to add all these family members from an entirely different region of the country. Because, of course, once I visited, it would be expected that I do so again. As it was, I rarely saw the extended family I did know, most of whom were in New England and New York, far from the California homes where I was mostly raised and have continued to live as an adult. Then, more daunting, there was the inevitable morbidity of it all, my father’s fate, though I’d long lived with that, albeit more from newspaper reporting on the messy trial than deeper humanizing family stories. Really, this was a murder mystery in reverse: while the general outline of my father’s final night was known, or at least a version of it, one that would get more questionable as the trip progressed, the real enigma was the man who had once been Paul “Allen” Hayes.
Aside from these inevitable emotional challenges, there was the fact that not visiting sooner had gained weight with each passing year, a denial, an implicit sort of affront to my family. For the first 25 years of my life I had an excuse: I wasn’t in contact with them, didn’t even know how to get in touch with them. But after 1994, when I tracked down my Aunt Sue in Connecticut—after a bitter and contentious breakup with my father Paul, Mom had completely removed herself from their lives, and only after repeated questioning did I get enough information to connect with Sue—I knew how to get in touch with everyone. Unlike my father’s fate or my parent’s early separation, or Mom’s choice to jettison my Alabama family from our lives, things that felt done to me, it became a blaring omission when I didn’t correct it. To make matters even weirder, I’d written and published a short nonfiction book called Loaded Stories (loaded guns, loaded men). This memoir was focused on 1970s California and the men who had raised me, fringe types with nicknames like Rattlesnake and Sunshine—Mom liked the wild ones, and the wild ones liked her—but there were some chapters about Paul’s murder, and I’d sent a couple of copies to Alabama. I had no idea how the family had taken the book, especially my youthful resentment toward Paul for choosing his friends and a life of crime over us.
Nevertheless, 20 years after re-connecting, I was finally going to the South of my birth for, well, my birthday. I had something of a mental list of questions beyond “What was my father like?” What was the name of the prison where Paul was incarcerated when he was 17, the place where he was involved in some sort of medical experiments that he believed had left him sterile (I was unplanned because Paul was supposed to be incapable of producing offspring)? Was there more to learn from the family about his running narcotics around the South in the years prior to his death? What was he like in the those final years? Did he have other relationships after it ended with Mom? Could they confirm he was living with a man in his final year? Romantically, that is—and, if so, did they know this ex-boyfriend’s identity? Then there was also a basic to-do itinerary: go to where I was born, see the houses we lived in, get a feel for his hometown and Alabama in general. Finally, I’d visit Paul’s grave for the first time. It was thirty-nine years ago, on the day before my fourth birthday, that he was executed at a remote highway rest stop in rural Tennessee.
I arrived in Alabama fairly late but it was still hot, a heavy, cloying heat that felt exotic, even appealing. My father’s hometown is Phenix City, a town of about 33,000 residents along the wide, rocky Chattahoochee River, Alabama’s eastern border river, just across from the much larger city of Columbus, Georgia. Soon after checking into a Days Inn motel—I was offered places to stay with the family, of course, but I (rightly!) figured I’d need some downtime between all the get-togethers and excursions—a sleek beige Cadillac pulled into the motel’s parking lot. My Uncle James bounded out of the passenger’s side of the car and came over and shook my hand. He was a bit shorter than me, bedecked in ‘Bama football red and white colors, and as fit and energetic a 71 year old as you’ll meet: a slim, wiry body and the rough hands of a man who’d done serious physical labor his entire life, from when he dropped out of school to work as a field hand to running his successful sheet rock business. I’d spoken to James on the phone once during that trip to Connecticut with Aunt Sue twenty years before, but otherwise I’d had no further contact with my uncle.
Uncle James was immediately chatty, which I attributed to nervousness, but I was soon disabused of this naïve conclusion: James, like many of my father’s seven living siblings and their spouses, are constant talkers—Wow!—something I would come to appreciate. His Southern accent was extremely strong, at times nearly impossible to decipher, but it had a fascinating sonorous drawl. He was charismatic and charming and I immediately felt a rapport with my uncle, the oldest sibling in the family. His wife, Glen, 14 years his younger, came around the car and gave me a hug. I’d made most of the arrangements for the visit with Glen via Facebook. She, in fact, had been the main instigator of the trip: “If you want to get to know them, you should do it soon,” she had written in a message. “They’re not getting any younger.” Glen came across as traditionally feminine, the “Southern lady” type right out of the movies. She had a kind, firm manner, and wore whites or fresh bright colors, like the aqua marine blouse and white slacks she wore tonight.
It was a short drive to the town’s IHOP, one of the two restaurants still open at 9 pm on a Friday night, where they’d planned for us to meet up with “the brothers and sisters.” The conversation was mostly small talk about the flight and drive from Atlanta, with Uncle James and I talking a bit of football, something we could relate on, even though I watched pro, and he focused on college. I soon learned a couple of James’s conversational methods. He tended to begin sentences with “Like I said…,” even though he hadn’t already made said statement. Another: “Let me ask you a question, Carl…” He sounded like a play-by-play broadcaster asking the analyst, “What do you think, Bob, should they punt the ball in this situation?” Over the course of the trip, I would come to suspect that James knew full well the answer to each question in question, but that it was a conversational tactic, a sort of polite deference to keep the conversation rolling, though at times I wondered if I was being tested, an unfair though perhaps not outlandish hunch. Not that I could entirely reply to said question before he moved the conversation on, sidetracks and roundabouts and crossroads—wait, didn’t we just go past here?
Already at the IHOP were my Aunt Millie and Frank, her husband of many years, a first generation Italian-American originally from Waterbury, Connecticut, an urban working class city in the center of the state and where Mom had been living when she met Paul in 1970. Aunt Millie was upbeat and I quickly sensed she was strong-willed, a person comfortable with steering much of the conversation. She had an authoritative maternal manner, relentless and self assured. Like James, she was also fit for her age, a bit younger than her brother. I soon learned she was a retired AFLAC executive. (Glen was also a long-time AFLAC employee.) Mille’s husband Frank was retired as well, a former electrician. He was friendly and had the air of someone strong in his beliefs, a calm, sturdy sort of conservatism. Frank liked to tell a story, drawing it out slowly, deliberately, almost like he was a performance artist. Once the train left the station, good luck stopping it.
Soon my Uncle Wayne and his wife arrived. Wayne was on the taller side and quite slim, though less athletic than James. He was semi-retired and owned and managed rental properties in the area. He was also a former military man who used to work as an electrician, and had a good gig at the regional newspaper in town at the printing plant, but was laid-off when they moved printing operations to Montgomery. His wife Mary was with him. Unlike James, I’d never even spoken to Wayne or had any contact with him at all. He was the second youngest in the family, and generally more measured than James and Millie, who when they got going would dominate a conversation, talking over one another, all the old stories known so well, most agreed upon, but not all, the occasional diversion or contentious point debated like it had been so many times before. Part of Wayne’s slow-burn quietness was due to the fact that he was completely deaf in one ear, the result of a tumor from when he was a young man. He had difficultly following conversations, especially if there was significant physical distance. My California accent, and the fact that I can sometimes talk low, almost a mumble, surely didn’t help. Really, in personality I was more like Wayne, rather than the lively and talkative other kin at the table. Though after a couple of drinks, which were scarce in these parts (later I’d have to cross the river into Columbus for that purpose), and the filters get deactivated, I can get chatty and loud.
And so it was there, over a patty melt at a quiet International House of Pancakes, our table the last customers before closing, that family information came in a deluge, an instantaneous downpour with limited visibility. It was years in the making, babies and siblings and relocations, colleges and jobs, divorces and now distant or estranged relationships, children. There were lifetimes to get caught-up on, generations. In turn I talked about Mom, my sister and her family, all who now lived in Vermont. I spoke about my job at a Japanese manga and anime company, where I did financial analysis. At the end of the night I would realize there was probably not one second of silence, where information or stories or playfully embarrassing anecdotes were not being shared, partly an eager attempt to make up for lost time, but also just their way, the Southern way.
After dinner and late-night coffee, we all drove over to Aunt Millie’s home, a nice house in a conservative manner, lighter colors and patterns, with photos of their children and grandchildren dominating the living room. Family, and there was a lot of it, was clearly central to their lives. I stay in close touch with Mom, but otherwise I’m not close to my family the way Paul’s family—well, the other portion of my family—appeared.
Aunt Millie had already pulled out some photos and other items to share, and they were waiting on the kitchen counter. We talked about Paul, whom the family called by his middle name Allen, which is also my middle name. Most of the photos were of Paul when he was young, some of which bore a strong resemblance to me at those ages. Meanwhile, the stories continued, each photo reminding them of others. Millie and Glen were leading these stories, especially since Glen’s mother had been married to James’s father, my grandfather.
“Let me be real clear,” insisted Glen, “we are not related!” She chuckled, blushing and slightly embarrassed. After my grandmother Reba left my grandfather Charlie, he remarried Glen’s mother, and that’s how James met Glen, whom he would marry after his first marriage ended. Yes, it was complicated. You could tell they were all enjoying this, getting to spin the old, often-told tales to a new audience. James and Wayne would tell plenty of stories themselves, but I got the sense they didn’t think much about fawning over old photos. They were more conversational free association kind of men.
The brothers and sisters were not shy in their discussion of Paul, now gone nearly four decades. There was love and sadness and he was fondly remembered, certainly, but I also got the sense he was discussed as A Life Lesson on where drugs—taking, dealing, distributing—and the underground lifestyle could lead. It made me think of Dirty Harry, where the San Francisco counterculture is portrayed as at best dirty, lazy, and good-for-nothing, at worst a trailblazing path toward criminal self-destruction. I wondered what it would’ve been like back in the 1980s, during the Just Say No days of my high school years, if I’d known my grandmother, my aunts and uncles. Smoke some pot and next thing you know you’ll wind up dead on the side of the highway like your father? But then I also had to wonder how much Paul’s violent end had influenced their own lives, the extent to which their cultural conservatism, especially around booze and drugs, was a consequence of his killing.
There were some surprising photos of Mom in the scattered photos—she looked so young. The most significant photo, however, was of Paul taken in January of 1975, the last of him alive. It was a photo I’d never seen before, and it had a freezing effect. There were only a handful of photos that Mom and I had when I was growing up, and all of those were around the time of their marriage and when I was born in 1971, or from a memorial card that was sent to us after his burial. The oldest I am in any of the photos is about 9 months, where Paul doesn’t seem too excited to be photographed holding his son. This new-to-me photo shows Paul with Millie, Sue, Barbara (she still lived in Connecticut), and James: they are locked arms around shoulders, enjoying themselves, an Alabama Brady Bunch photo, though it was low exposure with long winter shadows. The photo was taken by his mother Reba. I owed my grandmother much: she was the one who had collected the newspaper articles about Paul’s—her boy Allen’s—murder trial. Without these, I’d have little more to go on than stories.
It got late, time to go. We talked about the next day’s plans. Aside from visiting Paul’s grave, everyone would meet at Wayne’s for something called a low country boil, a thing (process? effect?) that I needed repeated several times before I understood the words involved. So, like, low as in elevation, country boil, as in to boil stuff? The thick accents didn’t help. They were shocked I hadn’t even heard of a low country boil, like they were describing a burrito and I was oblivious to such a food concoction. You’ll see, I was told. Aunt Sue and her husband Paulie would also be there, and I was looking forward to that. And Ted, the last of the “brothers and sisters” I hadn’t met yet, would come over.
By the time I got back to the motel room I was still caffeinated but profoundly exhausted: emotionally, mentally, physically. I had trouble getting to sleep. I don’t recall much about my dreams that night—over the years I’d dreamt of Alabama, manufactured or childishly remembered, I don’t know: old cars in deep, densely forested ravines, heavy rains, muddy overflowing river rapids, floods, cigarettes and a kind of blustery red anger—but they were extreme and bizarre, a great torrent of incoherent imagery and sensations that could not be absorbed. Not yet. Not ever?
Here is the story of Paul’s final night based on the newspaper articles saved by Reba, as told by a state witness’s testimony during the trial.
Paul’s car broke down on Route 411, a remote country highway in eastern Tennessee. It was late and the highway was poorly lit. Paul began hitchhiking to get help when five young white men in their late teens and early 20s, who’d been out drinking and getting loaded, picked him up in a 1955 Chevy. They had Paul sit in the back, in the middle. After driving awhile, one of the men wielded a buck knife and began terrorizing Paul, saying they were going to rob him. When the car pulled over to a small rest stop area Paul struggled to get out. He was slashed in the face during the fight, but he managed to escape and make a run for it. The area, however, led to an impassable Kudzu vine-clogged ravine: Paul was easily tackled and pinned to the ground by three of the young men. He was viciously and repeatedly beaten. Then, after some back and forth—the witness was still in the car, so he only saw events from a distance—the driver of the Chevy, Steven Bivens, returned to the car and pulled out a .38 pistol from under the driver’s side seat. Bivens walked back over and, while the other two men held him down, he shot Paul three times in the face. Paul was 25.
My father’s final resting place was at the edge of town, a large and mostly unshaded area upon a slightly rolling landscape. The air was blazing hot, as you would expect, my first full day in Alabama in August. It wasn’t much after 11 am and already in the mid-90s—“feels like” 99 it said on my smartphone weather app (I wasn’t even aware of this feature, the “real” temperature beyond the measured temperature). The cemetery’s lawn had a scorched look, an unhealthy, creepy shade of green, like overcooked veggies. Many of the gravestones were simply flat plaques in the lawn, with small bunches of sun-bleached artificial flowers scattered throughout.
It took a couple of minutes for James and Glen to find the spot where Paul was buried, next to his mother and younger brother Donnie, who had died in a car wreck three years before Paul was gunned down. It was never a strong priority for me to stand at my father’s grave, yet it was something I had imagined over the years, only I’d pictured it darker, shady, full of large leafy trees. Instead it was stark and bright with only the occasional tree, Paul’s plaque one among many, almost anonymous. It felt more eerie than moving to finally be standing there at the grave of the man who unintentionally helped give me life. I hadn’t considered it much before, but now it was clear that cemeteries, as it pertains to loved ones, were places to remember shared experiences. But for me this was simply absent, a chasm between what could have been and what was. Instead, Paul was only stories, photos, information. The love expressed by his brothers and sisters, the invisible but tangible light conveyed when they’d spoken the night before, held much more significance. Now I just felt disturbingly out of touch, an observer watching someone look at a stranger’s grave.
Really, this was more meaningful as Mom’s representative, who has never been to Paul’s grave. I knew she would never come, though she had asked me to say hi to her first husband, once the great love of her life. “Mom told me to say hi, so ‘hi’.” Uttering the words out loud gave them strange material presence, closer to life than the stillness and silence of death for all these years, a kind of fleeting reanimation.
Naturally I had to document the moment, so I pulled out my smartphone to take a photo, but there was a strong glare off the gravestone’s slick surface, along with a shadow created by a bouquet of artificial flowers. I stepped onto his grave and crouched down to get a photo that was visible. Despite the intense heat, I felt a chill of disquiet, like I’d stumbled upon something grotesque.
Uncle James’s behavior was different at his brother’s grave. The change was not in the tone of voice, or even volume. I could see it more in his eyes. He was a direct eye-contact person, but when something was difficult he looked away into the distance. As Glen spoke about my grandmother Reba, how devastated she was by Paul’s death, especially coming so close after Donnie’s death three years before, James meandered off and walked around the cemetery.
“James was really affected when Allen [Paul] passed,” said Glen, watching her husband. “They were close, James and your daddy.” I felt the tragedy of the situation for him. Including me: now, at 71, he was meeting his long-dead brother’s son as an adult for the first time. I wondered what he was thinking about, what memories all of this was conjuring up. James walked over to a small veteran’s memorial, hands on his hips. He looked at the horizon like he was waiting for someone to appear. He stood there awhile, looking.
There were artifacts of Paul’s life that had a mythic quality with the family, becoming more important in retrospect after his death, but most of them had been lost over the years during repeated moves. His artwork was the main thing: he’d done illustrations and calligraphy, mostly. “He could draw anything, just sit right down and draw it,” said one of the sisters, Sue or Millie, later that day as people—well, relatives—began to arrive at Wayne’s for the mysterious low country boil: sausage franks, shrimp, potatoes, and corn-on-the-cob boiled together in a giant pot and served with rolls and soda/sweet tea, followed by cakes (peanut butter cake!) for dessert. At times Paul made money painting window sign advertisements for sales and holidays. There were also recordings: Paul playing guitar and singing, one of him “talking about life and death.” The last one was painful, imagining such a thing existing, youthful as it would’ve been. While I’d seen photos, I hadn’t heard his voice, at least not when I was old enough to remember. I imagined it being something like James’s, but this was strange too, a 71-year-old man’s voice. It’s the voice that captures and imparts movement, his manners, his individual spirit. Was he high-strung like James, seemingly always in motion and chatting away? Was he mellower, a more measured speaker, like Wayne? Photos only capture the outlines of a person. In a voice, you can derive so much more of how they are. Who they were.
I’d never seen any of Paul’s artwork (I also draw, which the family was quick to credit to Paul), so it was exciting when Aunt Sue arrived and produced the only remaining illustration by him. It’d been 20 years since I’d last seen Aunt Sue, and she’d endured some life-threatening health problems in recent years. Always a slight, petite woman, she was much frailer than back when I met her in Connecticut, but she was upbeat and it was good to see her. The illustration was part of a handmade card for Sue’s birthday from when Paul was in prison. Its postmark allowed me to answer one question: Draper was the name of the prison where he was incarcerated at 17. (I later looked it up online and anecdotally confirmed the sterility story: the Alabama journalist Harold E. Martin had won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering coercive and deadly Big Pharma-related prison experiments, including those at Draper while Paul was incarcerated). On the card Paul had drawn a illustration of his sister as an elderly, stooped old woman with a cane, which attests to the sardonic humor in the family. Aunt Sue, now 68, didn’t exactly resemble the drawing, but it was “Twilight Zone” to be looking at an artifact from the past in its imagined future context, the place in time you now are, that was conjured by your long-dead father.
Also in attendance was the last of Paul’s siblings, his half-brother Ted. Ted and long-deceased Donnie were sons from Reba’s second marriage to Donald Ray. Ted worked in appliances and he was there with his wife Rita, another Alabama-New England connection. Ted was friendly and came across as a regular-guy with a good disposition and who’d be there to lend a helping hand if you needed it. He seemed to have done well for himself as well, another member of a large family that had risen from small town country poverty to comfortable and in some cases affluent positions over the course of their lives. Rita was outgoing and direct, reminiscent of Mom’s Connecticut sisters. She asked me something to the effect of how my life in California was, suggesting maybe I was dissatisfied with my life in San Francisco and why not return to my true home state, kind of a rebirth. After all, I was in my forties and never married, which in their world was a kind of bizarre malfunction of lifecycle objectives. “You just to need to find a nice Southern girl,” was Glen’s advice. I reassured everyone I was doing just fine, or at least living life as I chose, even if independent city life could make for some lonely nights.
At one point in talking about the family’s distant heritage (Irish indentured servants in the 1700s, pioneers in the early 1800s, Confederate Civil War soldiers, generations of field hands), I unintentionally stumbled upon the contentious politics the South is known for, so-called San Francisco politics vs Alabama politics. The topic had come up because I was told my great-great-great grandmother was purportedly Cherokee, left behind during the Trail of Tears era, and I mentioned DNA tests nowadays can shed light on one’s heritage, certainly in relation to millennia of genetic difference. The family collectively threw up their hands, and I was quickly brought onto Noah’s Ark, riding the seas of God’s wrath. I had unwittingly wandered into the subject of creationism vs. evolution. Apparently the Bible is pretty clear on the subject: it’s impossible that Native Americans had been in the Americas for thousands of years because the Earth wasn’t that old. Uncle James quipped: “Like I said, wish Noah would’a killed one of those misquitas.”
With Sue, Millie, and James around, the conversation turned from nostalgia for their shared youth to more serious discussions of Paul’s final year—his trouble with the law, a murky underworld of dubious and dangerous friends, long periods of absence, his personality transforming into a stranger to his older siblings. There was the ever-present rage toward the killer and his accomplices, the circumstances around the trial, their minimal punishments. Some of these stories I’d learned from Sue back in 1994, but there were new stories, either forgotten or lost in the general flood of information back then—I hadn’t taken notes, or written about that trip until years later, when it was subject to the limits and emphasis of my memory.
The main story was mostly familiar, from the last time any of the family saw him alive. One day the cops came by Reba’s looking for Paul. Sue, home alone, answered and said she didn’t know where he was. After the police left she went and told her brother (he was living nearby at the time). Shortly after, Paul called Sue and asked if she could hide a large amount of cash for him, and keep it a secret, including from their mother. This terrified Sue and she wanted to know what was going on, but he wouldn’t explain. Then Paul changed his mind, realizing that stashing the money with Sue would be too dangerous. Instead, later, he stopped by with a bag of freshly picked tomatoes and asked Sue to make him some tomato sandwiches—“Allen loved them tomato sandwiches!”—because he had to get out of town, and he’d be on the road awhile. The police were prowling the area, so he waited until nighttime to leave. The last thing he said to Sue and his mother was maybe he’d go to California. Maybe he’d go and find Natalie and Carl.
That Paul had so much cash, far beyond what anyone in the family would possess at the time, was serious. Then James mentioned something I had not heard at all, something that went the furthest to confirm Paul’s involvement in more than mere small-time drug distribution. Just a few months before his murder, Paul had been arrested in Atlanta by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as part of a drug sale sting. He’d been released on $250,000 bail. James didn’t know who paid the bail, but assumed it was his “friends.” The impounded Plymouth Duster Paul was driving at the time of his arrest was under James’s name—he’d sold the car to his brother, who hadn’t yet fully paid him, and James still held the title—so James had to retrieve the vehicle himself. James knew little about the situation Paul was in, but he was told to go to a nondescript Gulf Life Insurance building in Atlanta, where the GBI had its offices on the 5th floor. As James was dealing with the paperwork, the cops asked him questions, some casual interrogation, but he knew nothing. One of the agents who had arrested Paul warned James that his brother was in serious trouble. “That boy’s in deep,” the agent said. “He’s not long for this world.” James added there was a mug shot of him from the arrest, another artifact lost over the years. “Like I said, the photo wasn’t flattering, I can tell you that.”
Looking for answers, like a walking cliché, I only get more questions. First off, which “friends” exactly paid that bail? Wouldn’t the bail be forfeited when he left the area, making those friends enemies, surely not the kind of friends that made for good enemies? It seems improbable that, regardless of Paul’s entrepreneurial drug-involved activities, he could have actually earned enough to pay off his friends for the future forfeited bail when he absconded. Or, simply, losing the cash was worth it to his friends if Paul left the picture. Then there’s the money he asked Sue to hide. How did he get it? Certainly if Paul had a bunch of cash on him that alone would be motive enough for some backwoods psychopaths to rob and murder him. On the other hand, what if Paul was told to meet those guys, that the hitchhiking story was false? Perhaps it was part of one last deal before he went West. It was plausible his bailout friends were worried he’d implicate them, or betray them, and had him killed: the classic underground better safe than sorry modus operendi. Odds are Paul was doomed the moment he got busted by the GBI.
There were vivid colors, of course, but at times it felt like I’d slipped back into an old black and white movie, only hotter, a stark glare diffusing lines and shapes. No where was that more apparent than the next day, our trip down to the area in southeast Alabama where Mom and Paul lived when I was born. We had breakfast at the ubiquitous Waffle House, James with his eggs and meat. Not only did James avoid sides like bread, potato-related products, and the entire pasta family, he also steered cleared of veggies—“Like I said, that stuff’ll kill ya!”—and hadn’t drunk any straight water in probably 50 years, he reckoned. Glen drove her Cadillac, with James and Wayne in the back seat having differences of opinion on car mechanical matters, with James occasionally offering ongoing spirited commentary and/or critique about Glen’s driving along the way, usually beginning with “woman,” as in: “Woman, you’re gonna get us all killed!”
The first stop was at Dobb’s Bar-B-Que in Dothan, the flat, bright city where I was born. Dobb’s was the restaurant, then also a Mel’s-style park-and-serve stand, where Paul worked and had been arrested when he was 16 for attempting to rob the place with a friend after work. Since he used a brick to bash in the window, the owner, who was there unbeknownst to the teenage robbers, pushed to get assault with a deadly weapon charges, increasing the severity of the crime. “Worst mistake of his life” was the consensus in the car. Later, it was a violation of parole when he went to visit his mother in Phenix City—somehow he was picked up after crossing county lines—that landed Paul in prison over near Montgomery at the age of 17. James mentioned they saw Paul on some local TV news footage, one of a group of prisoners getting put on a bus to Attmore, the location of Draper Prison.
Dobb’s immediately gave me the deep-down creeps. My viewpoint was biased when I saw a proudly displayed photo of a flinty, button-eyed old man with a sign at the bottom that read “The great-grandson of this confederate soldier owns Dobb’s Bar-B-Que.” This struck me as more than mere historical pride. I wasn’t surprised, then, when there were only white people inside, the first time I’d entered an entirely white establishment since I’d arrived. In fact, generally I’d been conscious of how large the African American population was in in the restaurants and stores I’d been in—much more so than San Francisco—even if a disproportionate number were service workers (cooks, servers, busers) as opposed to customers, though Columbus seemed more integrated than Phenix City. There was definitely an Us vs Them way of speaking about race among my family, especially about black people, that was unsettling to a coastal Californian like me, but I reminded myself racist attitudes were often masked by more neutral language, were often alive and well once you broke the skin, and were certainly not something unique to the state where I was born. However, Dobb’s not only felt segregated, but it felt like I’d walked back in time to when it actually was segregated, under threat of attack. I wondered what my father, who came of age in the 1960s, thought of those violent years of the Civil Rights fight and racist murders.
We didn’t order much food, as the Waffle House was not too far in the rearview, just some milkshakes and fries. The tables were all fake wood Formica with orange seats from the 1960s. The wood paneled walls were covered with large, slick taxidermy Gulf of Mexico fish, as Dobb’s wasn’t too far from tourist/recreational hotspot of Panama City and the so-called Redneck Riviera. At one point a large, ancient man, perhaps in his 80s, just randomly shuffled up to our table. He had a supernaturally menacing face and wore a bulky, stained bear brown jumpsuit, something you might see a mechanic wearing while he changes your oil, or perhaps in an offbeat serial killer comedy. He made small talk and then pulled out some old, oversized, well-worn poker cards, pick a card, any card. He towered over the table, insisting on fun and games. Maybe he was the owner—perhaps even the man who pushed for charges against Paul.
After Dobb’s we drove to Newville, where Paul had lived for awhile when he was in high school, with his father and Glen’s mother, the convoluted circumstances by which James married the daughter of his stepmother. Glen was very nostalgic about her youth in Newville, even though they were poor. She described it in “Welcome to Mayberry” and Andy Griffith terms. Back when Paul came to live with his father and Glen’s mother, James was not around, instead married to his first wife and living in Florida. Glen spoke fondly of Paul, the older step-brother from the more urban Columbus/Phenix City area, who dressed hip and was loved by the girls. We went to their old house, now completely abandoned and in ruins, or “‘lapidated,” as James would have it. There were a lot of lapidated homes and buildings along the Alabama roadside, their roofs caving in at the center, fallen cakes among the thick pine forests.
All during the day trip, a stronger sense of Paul’s family life came into view, his two homes: the one in Phenix City with his mother Reba and Donald Ray, where he spent most of his time; the second down in Newville, with his father and Glen’s mother. James and Wayne described Donald Ray as a hard, even abusive man. They clearly still harbored intense anger toward him, and they never really understood why their mother left her marriage to Charlie for Donald Ray—this happened when Paul was only two, so he never really knew his parents together—though it was clear Reba was a fierce and strong-willed woman. (Millie didn’t agree with her brothers and saw a better side to Donald Ray: firm and strict, but those were the times.) Wayne said he went into the Army, where he spent most of his time in Germany during the Vietnam War, to get away from Donald Ray, himself a former military man. James bluntly described Donald Ray as a “habitual liar” who “had it in for Allen.” I didn’t learn, really, if “had it in” included “whoopins,” what many of us would now consider, well, child abuse.
Cottonwood felt like a dead town, ruins from a civilization recently past—one could imagine an Orson Welles narration of a Faulkner-esque text describing what was once a thriving rural community, a local center where people brought their freshly harvested crops to sell before they were transported elsewhere. James described the whole area as a lively social hub back then, but now the main strip of shops and stores in the town’s center were boarded up, falling apart, with faded paint from ages ago. I was disappointed because I wanted to get a least some feel for the place’s people. Instead, the center of town was simply abandoned. Of course, the larger area wasn’t as lifeless as it looked, just its old center. Surely there was a Walmart within driving distance.
We drove a bit out of town and passed a peacock farm. Mom had talked about this place: how the big, aggressive birds would wander across the roads and you had to be careful. And it wasn’t just regular driving, as back then car racing along the country roads was a primary social activity. Mom, in fact, is a life-long lover of fast cars, especially late ‘60s strong, souped-up muscle cars. She and Paul had a Firebird back then and they would race, along with James, who was something of a local champion. “Like I said, amazing I didn’t get myself killed, driving like that,” said James with more than a tiny bit of nostalgia.
Then, there it was, our first place. It was a two-story white mixed-use storefront/house, and in decent shape, especially considering how the town looked. It needed a paint job, but it had some classic charm. Mom and Paul had lived up on the second floor, which included a large enclosed porch area near the back. James said Mom and Paul would sit out there at night, or when the heat was too much during the day. There was no evidence that anyone lived upstairs now, but the ground floor had a small sign, “Vision Through Light Church,” though the blinds were drawn and there was no movement. Back in 1971 Mom had painted their floor in red and black swirling patterns, installed rainbow curtains, added zebra skin patterns to the table tops and counters. There were well-played rock-n-roll LPs all over the place, loud parties, visits from the law about noise and carrying on. They didn’t have air conditioning, and I imagined Mom pregnant in those final days of July and August and how brutal that must’ve been. “Allen and Natalie were famous around here,” said James. “With the music and parties, there was always something going on.”
At one point I asked James about the Orlando boyfriend story: two years after Mom and Paul’s rocky marriage failed Mom tracked him down in Florida to rekindle their marriage; instead, Paul told her he had a boyfriend. James was surprisingly tolerant on the subject, at least in terms of what I expected. It seemed to help that Glen’s brother Mike, who now lived in St. Louis, was gay, and had a long-term partner (they were soon to be married in Las Vegas), a fellow Mike: the Mikes, or Mike & Mike, was the joke. Perhaps he was biting his tongue, as the source was Mom, and he knew she felt deeply humiliated by the event, the final act of their relationship. Really, James just couldn’t fathom that he wouldn’t have sensed his brother dug dudes, that he wouldn’t have at least suspected. Which seems reasonable, because Mom was also utterly shocked. So, it was possible that Paul was using this newfound bisexuality as a ruse to get Mom off his back—it worked!—as she was on a mission to end their separation.
Later on the daytrip to Cottonwood I learned a surprising new fact about my father, something that had more direct relevance to me: Paul was an unapologetic unbeliever. I’d asked about his religious beliefs and James said, quite empathically: “He didn’t believe in any of that stuff!” I could immediately tell this was a disturbing subject for the family. I believe Glen said something to the effect that she didn’t believe he’d stayed that way. Surely Paul had rediscovered his religion in the end, during those final terrorized moments. Generally, this was agreed upon. It was clear the family would not accept the idea of their beloved Allen burning in hell.
I was grateful that James, in his direct way, told me: I doubted anyone else in the family would’ve mentioned it. This new knowledge gave me some satisfaction, anyway. There’s nothing like having a murdered father to make you question God’s moral intentions, or god’s existence, and what does or does not happen after death, at an early age. The family knew that, like my father, I didn’t believe in any of that stuff. (“So, what, you think when you die, that’s it?” asked Millie at one point. “Yeah…” I said. “Yeah.”)
The moment I felt the brutality of Paul’s murder in a raw way was during a daytrip to Montgomery. I’d considered driving to Tennessee, to the turnout where Paul was shot to death, to the courthouse where his trial occurred four years after the fact, assuming it was still there. Why? Good question. I suppose that was also the answer: Why? It was a six-hour drive, so it was impractical, considering the timeframe and how busy I was with family obligations, but not impossible. I finally decided against it: if I ever were to go, I’d need to be better prepared, ready to do it right. Really, I’d need to hire some local PI who knew the area—officials, bureaucracies, others—to help. Instead Uncle James and I went to Montgomery, a different, less personal history lesson: slavery and the cotton era, the Civil War, the violence and sacrifices of the Civil Rights desegregation era, Hank Williams’s fine clothing and finer car.
It was a good daytrip to that bright city, educational (infuriating, but then somehow hopeful—Montgomery confronts its ugly racist history, and celebrates those who sacrificed for change, more openly than California cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles do), and I enjoyed Uncle James’ company. During the drives, James reminisced about his own experimentations with drugs when he was younger and hanging out with Paul and his party buddies. He was recently off a bitter divorce and going toward the wild side, though more with booze and late nights than drugs. He talked about occasionally trying hash-laced pot and acid, neither of which he liked at all, including one episode that made him severely ill, his last foray into the psychedelics. “Not for me, no thank you. Dude, that freaked me out!” But it was the self-destructive aspects that really bothered James and the drug culture: “I just didn’t understand why Allen would get all caught up in that stuff. I didn’t understand it all. It was like he wanted something for nothing, and I don’t believe in that, not at all. Like I said, I tried to help him but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
While driving back the subject of Mom came up and it occurred to me I could call her in Vermont right there on the rental car stereo system, which I was using to play Hank Williams from my smartphone. After pressing some virtual buttons I had Mom on the line. And so, the wheels turning somewhere between Montgomery and Phenix City, James and Mom spoke for the first time since we’d left Alabama in 1974. It was a light conversation, mostly small talk about the families, health, the weather, the trip so far, what we’d been up to. We could hear Mom’s labored breathing from the oxygen tank she had to use these days after decades of smoking. It was a stilted, jerky conversation, though James, ever the charming talker, in his sociable way worked to keep it moving, and Mom too was upbeat and friendly despite this surprise voice from the past. There had been a time when she was friends with her brother-in-law, someone she looked to for help when her husband was away.
Not long after, James told me about his trip to Tennessee after Paul’s death, about the physical reality that followed the crime. My grandmother, distraught and nearly out of her mind, insisted that James go and confirm that it was in fact Paul. Reba just didn’t want to believe her boy Allen was dead, even though he’d already been identified by the Feds via his fingerprints from his time in prison—they’d had to send them to Washington, D.C. to confirm his identity. James drove up to Vonore with the local coroner and a worker from the funeral home in the home’s hearse. When they arrived the coroner, after confirming Paul’s body, told James he shouldn’t go in. “He said I’d be having nightmares the rest of my life if I saw what was in there.” James heeded his advice, but it was the long drive back that really got him. It was late by the time they left, but the drive was still baking August hot. The chemicals, a nasty smell in its own right, were not enough to mask the stench of his brother’s decaying body right behind him. They kept the windows open and blasted the air conditioning, but it wasn’t enough. The experience wasn’t just emotionally gut-wrenching, but physically so. James, not of delicate constitution, said he kept feeling like he might puke. His voice, normally clear and deliberate when he spoke, now wandered off: “We drove that way all night…that was about the size of it…”
My time in Alabama thus far had had a generational distortion: I was speaking with my elders, not my peers. At the dinner party with 29 new relatives, many now displaying name tags, I tried to get to know my cousins more. It wasn’t easy. We spoke about work, who did what and where. Their senses of humor were reminiscent of my cousins in Connecticut, large families with lots of kids, family that spent good chunks of time together and knew each other’s ongoing stories well. For me, it didn’t help that there was no alcohol, something to take the edge off. I’m just not a soda pop and sweet tea kind of guy. I aint saying I need a beer to socialize, but it’s strongly preferred, especially when I’m in a dropped into a room full of strangers for whom spirited conversation is a full contract sport.
When I thought about it, my cousins and I were really in the same boat: middle-age relations who didn’t know each other at all. It was a funny sort of common ground in contrast to the aunts and uncles, who knew me when I was a baby, and of course knew Paul, so there was an access to fondness and love that the cousins and I did not share. I wondered how much my cousins and I would have in common: music, movies, books, politics. They all had kids and were living the family life, so that alone would be a significant difference to my own life. A couple of their kids were college age, off to Auburn and Alabama universities, starting off on their great college adventures with bright eyes. What were the cousins like when they were that age: more reckless, getting into trouble; at Bible class; both? I was running out of time and it would have to wait.
Whereas some of Paul’s siblings and their spouses approached me like I was one of them, the cousins did not. And it was correct. We might have things in common, interests and concerns we might learn about later. But aside from some similar appearances, there was little reason to think we were like each other. Later, in hindsight, I wish I would’ve thought to press this more, though I didn’t really know where to begin among the dozen cousins. It wasn’t spoken about, but I could imagine they were a bit unimpressed, perhaps even resentful: here I walk in at a time of my choosing and they’re supposed to be accommodating and friendly to this complete stranger from California.
The only cousin, really, who was aloof and made little effort to socialize with me was, in the sort of exquisite irony that adorns one’s life, James’s son from his first wife, the one who most “favored” Paul—I’d been hearing about him, how he looked and acted like Paul. And, based on the photos anyway, I could see it. I’m not sure if his absence was deliberate, other than off on his own plane of concerns and considerations, and of course it wasn’t his fault that he looked just like my dead father, but it felt appropriate. While the others made earnest efforts to talk with me, he did not, just a quick comment as we were standing in preparation for the obligatory photos: a comment I can’t even recall. And he simply disappeared at some point, so there were no chance to talk one-on-one, which I’d planned, or hoped, to do. It was uncanny and I was fascinated by him, in a discreet way of course. He was high-strung and kind of jumpy, much more-so than James. He was charismatic and a joker, intensely focused on people, even as he remained slightly aloof, that formula for people who tend to attract others. But then, later, I thought it made sense. I’d have to come back again. I would have to be in their lives more if I expected the real deal. I couldn’t just jump in, jump back out. He symbolized one proper aspect of the event. To some extent this is what the families of the murdered must overcome—or, like me, avoid.
The next day was my last full day in Alabama and my actual birthday. I’d be driving to New Orleans the following morning, my real birthday present. Even though I’d never been to New Orleans, I felt like I was getting back to familiar, appealing ground: listening to lively, diverse, good music on Frenchman Street while sipping cocktails served by witty bartenders who looked like John Waters’ more eccentric brother, or who had just walked out of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” only with bangs, a Louisiana native, a tantalizing glimpse of my kind of “Southern girl,” maybe not so nice, the irresistible soft sensual allure that occurs on hot, still summer nights in a city crackling with artistic tension.
I spoke to Mom, then spent the afternoon across the river in Columbus, which had a cultured college town feel, including a downtown of well-maintained and interesting old buildings, among them a “historic” cotton mill that had been turned into riverside condos. For dinner, the family took a smaller group of us to a chain steakhouse, including a second cousin whose birthday was also soon (they usually group birthday celebrations on a monthly basis because the family’s so big). Afterwards we went to Aunt Millie’s. Prior to cake, there was another long blessing. “I know you don’t believe in it, but we do,” said Millie. It was time to say goodbyes. I thanked them for everything, the openness and hospitality. I said I wouldn’t be stranger. They were already talking about me visiting for the holidays, and I was noncommittal—certainly, my next family trip would be to visit Vermont. When I gave Aunt Millie a hug goodbye she started to get emotional, tears in her eyes. “You have no idea what this is like for us, you being here. It’s like Allen’s here—our baby brother’s back here with us.”
This hadn’t really occurred to me. While I was looking toward the brothers and sisters for stories and clues as to who Paul was, they were revisiting my father in me. Like, literally.
I thought it a fitting end to my time in Alabama: breakfast with Uncle James at his local Waffle House. When I walked in James was chatting with the waitress about her family. It wasn’t very crowded and he was at his usual booth, the highway low and vanishing behind him, a ubiquitous college football cap perched over sweet tea, eggs, and meat, the newspaper sports section in-hand.
James was talkative as ever, giving me his thoughts on New Orleans, which he didn’t like. I spoke of the jazz scene, but James was unimpressed and disinterested. (Glen, however, liked the Crescent City—the only one in the family who seemed to. “You’ll find that a lot of people in the South don’t like it there,” she’d said the day before. “I just think it’s veryinteresting, all those street performers.”) Be careful, it’s dangerous down there, was James’s general advice. We talked about the drive down, the different routes, whether to stop in Mobile or Biloxi along the way, though the Gulf itself, not the casinos, was the only prospect that appealed to me. But really I just wanted to be in New Orleans ASAP.
James talked about his Corvette, trying to figure out what was wrong with the one he’d been working on for awhile. I’m not mechanically inclined, so most of it went over my head. Still, he went into detail. It was hard to place James. I wondered what my life would’ve been like—or how different I might be—if I’d known him and the family while growing up, coming of age, my college years when I was angry and strident, when social and religious conservatives were my version of Others. He had a generosity of spirit that was clear, an excellent sense of humor, but you got flashes of how he could be a hard-ass, opinionated, prejudiced, inflexible. You could see him as a football coach, not the head coach, perhaps, but the mean defensive line coach: liked, respected, sometimes reviled, yet inspiring a deep sort of loyalty. In any event, the coach you’d better impress if you wanted to get in the game.
Glen stopped by on her way to work and we talked a bit. We said our goodbyes and she headed over to the AFLAC offices. The Waffle House bill paid, Uncle James and I slowly moved toward our vehicles: his pickup truck, my rental, parked side-by-side. It was unusually quiet for a few moments, really the first awkward silence since our visit to Paul’s grave. James was 71 and he seemed like he would live another 30 years, but you never knew. Would I see him again? James made a quip to “watch out for naked girls, they got a lot of them down there in New Orleans, they’ll come right up to ya.” I said that sounded terrible, just terrible, and he chuckled.
Then Uncle James said: “Like I said, love you, man.” I said, love you too. I can’t say I knew that I meant it—that I could experience familial love after a week—but I did know I wanted to mean it. Anyway, it felt like a start.