In the early spring of 1963, my Grandma Leverett (my mom’s mom), was pregnant with her seventh and final child, Skyla Gay. Grandma’s two oldest daughters were also pregnant. Rachael would soon give birth to Gregory Kent, and Cindy would soon give birth to Noel Ray (moi). That made Greg my cousin and Skyla our aunt. Born just weeks apart, we all grew up together in a small Southern Indiana town. Skyla and I lived in the same house, more or less. She lived in the front part of the musty old shotgun one story at the corner of 9th and Western Avenue (Main Street, now) with her mother and several older siblings. I lived with my mother and little sister in the back of the house, which had been subdivided into a couple of efficiency apartments. Ours faced the alley behind the house and had a large living room that doubled as the bedroom and a kitchenette that you passed through to reach the bath. The tub was one of those old-timey ones that stood on four short legs fashioned to look like dog’s feet or bird’s claws (I can’t remember which). The old house had settled over the years, and I could let go of my toy truck on one side of the living room and watch it roll by force of gravity into the opposite wall. The walls had 10 inch paint-caked victorian baseboards and loud, raised-velvet wallpaper with a giant fleur de lis print. All the doors had rusty brown skeleton locks whose skeleton keys had been lost in decades past.
Fire in the Belly
Around the time we three brats (well, Greg wasn’t really a brat), advanced to the third grade, Skyla began to make a habit of be-bopping down the side of the house to the back apartment where we lived whenever she sensed my mother’s boyfriend, Wayne, might be around. Skyla felt an obligation to her older sister, who was sixteen years her senior. Skyla always had a sermon welling up in her innards and needed to preach hellfire and brimstone to someone. Mom’s boyfriend, Wayne, was always a big, easy target. And, he needed it. Wayne was a jolly sort. He was shortish, with a jiggly belly, pasty skin, freckles, and a red, bushy, Freddie Fender-style afro, the hairline of which slid down the front of his forehead a little too close to his brow. Wayne had a pronounced over bite, gambled some, and drank a little more. He’d come by the back alley apartment on Fridays after getting paid and give my sister and me some cash to go eat supper at the local Burger King. We’d greedily grab the bills and burst through the flimsy, dark green painted screen door, bee-lining for Burger King and a delicious Whaler fish sandwich (well, that’s what I always got). When Wayne saw Skyla through the side window, coming around the house with a quick step, he would raise his eyebrows, pucker his lips, and whisper, “Whoop, whoop. Here comes Preach. E’erbody look out!”
Well, Skyla knew Wayne was in need of spiritual help, and she was practiced in the art of bringing wily sinners to repentance. At four feet tall and skinny, with aquiline features, a stringy, dishwater blonde ponytail, and a sassy, bobbing head, she’d start right in with the preaching. Wayne would be shuffle-dancing around the slanted living room floor in his burgundy plaid, hip-hugging, double-knit polyester leisure suit pants and plain white tee shirt, holding a drink and trying to sing the words to Billy Swan’s I Can Help. She’d let him have it with whatever she’d heard the preacher say down at the church that Sunday. Wayne, a little tipsy and squinting from the Viceroy dangling from his lips, would go toe-to-toe with the little dynamo. This was never a good move and always ended in delicious drama. Skyla would stand right in front of him, bent at the waist, one knee locked and the other crooked, wagging her head, with one hand on her hip and the other pointing her finger as she preached. “Look at you,” Skyla would snark. “Been drinkin’, hadn’t cha? You need deliverance. Don’t you know, ain’t no drunks gettin’ into heaven? You’re goin’ straight to H-E-L-L!”
Wayne would wobble around with a silly look on his face, “Who do you think you are, Preach? All you do is come around here and preach! Ain’t you got somethin’ better to do, PREACH?”
This would infuriate the tiny evangelist. “That’s it, I’m tellin’ Grandpa!” she’d whine. And, out the door she’d go, head thrown back, marching to some distant beat, arms a swingin’.
Grandpa and Grandma Jackson lived next door and owned their house and the one we all lived in. Grandpa, who was Skyla’s grandfather and my great grandfather, was a strict Methodist. Never cursed and never drank. Smoked a pipe in his early years, but gave it up. He was 6 feet tall, with thin white hair that was wispy on top. He had a slight paunch that was hard as a carp. And, he was very old school. He was born in 1901, so he lived through the depression in his thirties. He always wore a hat, clipped coupons, and frequented government offices and shoe repair shops, and the like. He taught me to rotate my shoes, shine them myself, and keep them resoled. I relished knocking around town with him while he ran errands and took care of whatever business occupied his days. He gave me hideous bowl haircuts in the makeshift barber shop he ran for the family in his cool, damp basement, where he also helped me setup a small workstation for building model cars. He was a real Grandpa. Anyway, he rarely ventured to the back apartment unless he was going to fix something. So, Wayne was usually safe.
Mischief and Malevolence
As we grew up, Skyla and I were like brother and sister. Climbing trees, telling scary stories at night like, Bloody Fingers, and spying on the grandparents, were the usual amusements. Sometimes, when I was chasing Skyla around the outside of the house, I’d let her get ahead of me and then trip myself so she could get away. She would stop and screech out an evil cackle that made me howl on the ground with laughter, holding my belly and thrashing around like I’d broke my leg. We were stupid together.
Skyla had a rivalry with one of her teenage sister’s boyfriends. Rick, who eventually became my uncle when he married Skyla’s sister, Drucilla, used to come around the house in the summer time to cut the grass (we didn’t say, mow the lawn). I guess he was trying to get in good with the grandparents. One day, Rick was near heat exhaustion after cutting the big yard with the push mower, and he asked Skyla to get him a glass of ice water. Skyla returned with the water and continued playing in the yard. After Rick chugged it down, Drucilla, who’d been watching the whole thing, got suspicious when she eyed Skyla trying to hide the large grin on her face. Drucilla figured it out and started giggling, her shoulders bouncing uncontrollably up and down. When she caught her breath, she yelled out to Rick, “Skyla gave you toilet water!”
Rick tried to play it off and let out a half gasp-half laugh. Then he started to grimace and convulse with a herky-jerky move that sent Drucilla into a fit. She peed herself, as she often did when she got to laughing too much. Skyla just walked away in triumph, muttering under her breath, “That’ll teach ya …” Skyla added much richness to my early life. She had nerve and was always cooking something up. I guess that’s why she was “Skillet” to me.