Daddy took the jug inside to the kitchen sink to wash off the grease. I sat in the living room with everyone else. After Daddy finished cleaning his hands, he set the jug, which still had two inches of fuel, on the floor right beside the water jugs. He walked into the living room and took his seat.
“I fixed it,” he said waiting for us to acknowledge and congratulate him on his mechanical prowess. In reality, all he had done was remove the breather and pour gas down the carburetor, but in his mind, it was a feat to be recognized. Everything Daddy did commanded praise, from cooking breakfast to major auto repair jobs like this one. Some he really did outdo himself on; others, not so much. “Is there a game on?”
I walked to the television and grabbed the little pliers. For the third time in four years, we had electricity again, and each short period felt like winning the lottery.
And no one noticed little Dinky, who was about to turn three, barefoot and wearing a small shirt and droopy shorts, wander into the kitchen. She was thirsty and did what we all did; she took a jug and turned it up. It was the God-awful coughing that got everyone’s attention. Mama and Daddy rushed to the kitchen to see her gagging and holding the jug of gasoline. Her eyes made her look unconscious, but she stood like a mannequin… coughing… gagging.
Daddy yanked the jug from her hand and yanked her off the floor.
“Oh God,” Mama said. “How much did she drink?”
Dinky continued to cough.
“I don’t know,” Daddy said, “but I can smell it on her breath.”
“What do we do?”
“Goddammit,” Daddy screamed. “Get everyone to the car!” Daddy rushed out the front door, and we followed.
Mama got in the front passenger seat and held Dinky as she continued to barf like I did when I tried to eat vegetables. I felt so sorry for her. I knew how bad it was to get gas in your mouth, but I never swallowed.
Daddy drove. The rest of us were in the back seat trying to hold on to anything as we sped recklessly away, tossed around like stowaways on a ship in a storm. After we reached the end of our long private driveway and topped the little hill by our cousins’ house, the dirt road became darker. That meant the road grader had recently come. I hated the fact that I missed it. One of my few pleasures in life was watching that giant yellow skeleton with tractor tires taller than I am and a long-angled blade under the midsection scrape the top level of dirt away from our road, erasing the ruts and grooves caused by a month of torrential downpours.
I don’t know if the loose dirt accounted for what happened next, but the left tires of the car slid into the deep ditch on the side of the road. Daddy never let up as we continued at a slanted angle, my sisters and I sliding into a pile of confused youngsters. The front tire finally struck a huge rock in the ditch and that bounced us back onto the dirt road. Daddy blew past the stop sign at the end of our road as the tires spun into clouds of smoke on the asphalt. How we got off the mountain in one piece is still a mystery.
We pulled into the emergency room entrance at DeKalb General, and Daddy rushed in to tell them what happened. Folks came running out and took Dinky from Mama’s arms and carried her inside.
“Come on,” Mama said to us, bright lines zigzagging down her face from where the tears had run and dried.
We got out and followed her inside. Julene, Neenah, and I took seats in the waiting room as Mama and Daddy followed the hospital workers into the back.
“What happened?” Neenah asked.
It had happened so fast that my older sisters were still in the dark.
“Dinky drank gasoline,” I explained.
“Is she going to die?” Neenah asked and started crying. Neenah was always the most sensitive of us.
I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer. But my mind instinctively played out the worst-case scenarios over and over. I wondered how life would be if she didn’t make it. We were all kind of fond of her, but she was not entirely one of us, at least not yet. The bond between me and my two older sisters was akin to that of the brotherly commitment of soldiers in a war. We had also been through hell and had survived—so far at least—but I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t know how we made it to the ages of seven, nine, and eleven, or even if we’d see the next year.
It seemed like we waited for hours. Maybe we did. I went to the bathroom six times.
Finally, Mama came out to talk to us. “She’s going to be fine.”
We all breathed a sigh of relief.
“They had to pump her stomach,” Mama continued. “She’ll have to stay here a little while so they can keep an eye on her.”
I have never experienced the euphoria that comes with news like this.
A few minutes later, Daddy came out of the back. He seemed amazingly calm or perhaps just emotionally drained. “Go on back and sit with her, and I’ll take the kids home.”
We walked out to the car, and we all got in the back seat, even though Mama and Dinky weren’t in the front now. Daddy drove in complete silence. I felt sorry for him. I knew the guilt of setting the jug with the gas right beside the water jugs had to be weighing on his conscience. I thought of offering words of encouragement to lift his spirits, but I decided against it.
We assumed Daddy would simply drop us off and go back to the hospital. The three of us had been staying home alone for years when Mama went with Daddy to put on dinners to sell stainless-steel cookware. But Daddy followed us in.
“Sit down,” he said pointing to the couch.
We obeyed. I wasn’t sure what was coming, but I assumed it was going to be a soul-searching speech on the importance of safety or perhaps of the bonds of family. I was wrong.
“Y’all almost killed your sister tonight.”
We all three looked at each other in confusion.
“Y’all know you’re supposed to keep an eye on her, because she’s too young to look out for herself.” Daddy began unfastening his belt buckle.
It was a familiar scene, and what followed next was all too familiar also. Neenah started crying right away. She did this at the mere possibility of a whipping, and Daddy could never bring himself to whip her with tears running down from those big brown eyes. That old softie.
One thing was clear—Neenah was a heck of a lot smarter than Julene and I.
“Neenah, go to your room.”
She didn’t have to be told twice. It’s not that she wanted to abandon us; she just didn’t have the strength to disobey. Neenah was devoted to our three-person band, and I have no doubt she would have taken a bullet for us. But a belt? Daddy’s belt? No way in Hades. We didn’t blame her at all.
Julene and I were defiant, especially when we thought Daddy was in the wrong, which he was most of the time. And this time, we had zero doubt. Our goal was to show him he couldn’t hurt us. Our goal was to show him we were stronger than he was. Our goal was not to cry, no matter what until he realized his attempts were futile. Our goal was pure idiocy.
Daddy doubled over the belt, snatched Julene up by the left arm, and swung away. Julene gritted her teeth, pure hatred flowing from her young face. Her eyes stayed locked on mine.
My war face was on full display as well. It was my way of offering support.
Daddy continued to swing as hard as he could. The sounds of the belt connecting with my sister were louder than you can imagine, and each blow chipped away at her hate and slowly replaced it with pain.
As I said, Neenah was much smarter. Mine and Julene’s plan had one serious flaw: Daddy did not consider the punishment successful until he saw tears.
Julene held out for an amazing amount of time, but it was not possible to go on forever. As she began to cry from the pain, Daddy tossed her back onto the couch. She stared at me, and I could read her mind. She was so sorry. She wasn’t sorry for what happened to Dinky, because we both knew that wasn’t our fault. She was sorry, because she couldn’t last forever. She was sorry that she couldn’t protect me, because we knew it was now my turn.
Daddy yanked me off the couch so hard, my feet left the floor. I kept my eyes on Julene. I wanted to make her proud. I wanted to break her record. I wanted to do everything I could to not give that son of a you-know-what the satisfaction. I’m not sure how long I held out, but it was a personal best. When Daddy left to drive back to town, his right arm had to be hurting. We showed that bastard.
Excerpted, with permission, from With the Devil's Help: A True Story of Poverty, Mental Illness, and Murder by Neal Wooten. Published by Pegasus Books.