The Bequest of Big Daddy
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“Many Southern families have their Big Daddy – the wayward rapscallion whose criminal activities pave the way for his descendants’ respectability. In vivid prose that is at turns satirical, tender, and horrific, Jo-Ann Costa paints a compelling portrait of one such man – Ratio Janson. She shows how his loveless childhood developed in him a desperation and ruthlessness that assured not only his immediate physical survival, but also his eventual transformation into a wealthy patriarch, a true Southern capofamiglia. Anyone who enjoys Southern fiction or picaresque novels will love this one!”
—Lisa Alther, Author of six novels and four New York Times bestsellers, among them Washed in the Blood.
From a Reconstruction-era turpentine and logging industry to the decaying ruins of a doomed plantation with its dying social system, The Bequest of Big Daddy is evocative of all that was wrong in the post-Civil War South.
At its heart, this is the story of a man born to Southern aristocracy then reduced to peasantry, who spawns an empire of outcasts, heroes and heroines—among them a great-granddaughter who is determined to learn the truth about her kin’s hushed, painful past.
The story is set in motion at the deathbed of Ratio Janson, a crusty patriarch with an infamous background, a hair-trigger temper and a feisty great-granddaughter named Jo-Dee. From the shocking gossip she overhears at his funeral, Jo-Dee is determined to plumb the murky past as the protective skin of Ratio’s story falls away.
Will she betray her great-grandfather and disgrace the family name, or will she preserve his shameful secret? Will Ratio’s spirit claim her even from the grave? Sometimes, a bit of violence in the family is a good thing.
Big Daddy is scheduled for launch in April of 2013.
About the Author
Jo-Ann Costa studied her craft at the knees of her clannish Alabama kin, who are among the most accomplished at fabricating outlandish tales. Thus trained as a storyteller, Ms. Costa honed her compelling voice while serving in executive roles for a mega-corporation founded by the late Howard Hughes. While there, and with higher stakes, she invented tales of a different sort. Since then, Ms. Costa has once again deployed her trademark spin with her debut novel, The Bequest of Big Daddy.
Visit the author’s website at www.jo-anncosta.com
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.
JO-DEE: SUMMER OF 1953
As I understand it, Big Daddy was born that way, unable to help himself when he acted ugly and equally unable to recognize right from wrong. By the time I last saw Big Daddy, he had grown brittle-old. Back then, I was but a child, almost eight years old, barely able to sit still while my father held Big Daddy’s withered hand.
The colorful stories I’d heard about Big Daddy approached legion and yes, you could say, legendary, as these types of tales go. But in my young mind, it seemed the frail man could not really be Big Daddy, for Big Daddy had once been big, I thought, and as I remembered him, profane, which had not changed a whit. Oh yes, and he was mean–hornet mean–the kind of mean that leaves a stinger you can’t dig out.
At first, I meant to spare him this last label and not mention Big Daddy’s meanness–then I reconsidered. Knowing how Big Daddy tried all his life to scare the heck out of folks, his life story deserves to be told just as he was.
On that day, my mother didn’t come with my father and me to visit Big Daddy as she harbored a low opinion of my great-grandfather. She said she had his “number,” and I remember wondering if she intended to call him later. My mother had a variety of sayings I didn’t understand.
Licentious or not, Big Daddy’s days, hours and minutes on this earth were numbered, of that I was certain. And despite my mother’s objections, my father meant he would drag me along to pay homage to the family Lothario (another confusing word my mother applied to Big Daddy).
Outside of our sprawling family, others addressed Big Daddy as “Mr. Janson.” He demanded that sort of respect. That is, all except for the Colored folks, who called him as a young boy, “Mr. Ratio,” short for Horatio, a name his mama thought dignified after a too brief study of Hamlet. This distinction aside, to the members of the biggest spread of kin you nearly ever saw, the name “Big Daddy” was all we knew, or “Yes and No Sir,” if we didn’t want to be struck with his silver-tipped cane with the naked lady emerging from its top.
I’ll never forget that day when we went to say our farewells, for it is burned into my memory like no other. Our family’s Big Daddy was feared and revered and I was not exempt from his effect. A dubious role model, he occupied this position of peculiar honor throughout his long life. The anticipation of seeing him again sent thrills through my skinny body, exactly like the moments before stepping onto a Tilt-a-Whirl.
“I want you to say good-bye to your great-grandfather,” my father said, “you’ll be looking at a legend, Jo-Dee. One final time, you can see with your own eyes what a legend looks like before he’s gone.” Daddy shook his head, snicking his tongue against his back teeth. “They don’t make ‘em like that old rooster anymore. Your ancient kin is one-of-a-kind.”
“Yessir,” I answered, both wanting and not wanting to tag along, the wanting winning, despite the big words my mother used to describe Big Daddy, which for all the world to me, sounded like my kin carried a dreaded disease. Nevertheless, giddy with anticipation, I followed Daddy to our car on a glare-studded summer morning in 1953.
Settled inside my father’s prized DeSoto, we drove out into the countryside, Daddy whistling like I wished I could whistle, windows rolled down, the warm air whipping through my hair, strands of it entering my open mouth when I shouted my admiration of Daddy’s talent through the blasts of whooshing air. A hundred wild hairs and a few miles later, we turned onto Aunt Beulah and Uncle Sibley’s dirt road.
Freshly waxed and now covered with a layer of Alabama red dust, the sedan rumbled to a stop at the back of their whitewashed farmhouse, scattering Aunt Beulah’s chickens. My father cut the engine, hopped out to pop the trunk where he fished around for the shammy that lay under a wheel well, stiff as a corpse.
The bucket intended for Big Daddy’s dogs, who were now temporary guests along with the pugilist Big Daddy, provided all the water my Daddy needed. As I watched his strong hands wring out the shammy, I admired the tattoo of a flying skull on his upper arm–the one he said he couldn’t remember getting during the war. In one deft move, my father snapped the shammy which made a sharp “thwack” in mid-air, just short of my bare legs. As he took aim, I squealed and ran around to the other side of the car, my Daddy in mock pursuit. Once out of reach, I squatted down to take a peek and saw that Daddy’s feet remained on the opposite side where he had already begun his car polishing, a habit he repeated each day. Not a speck of dust lingered long on any of his snappy cars.
From my vantage, I could hear him humming while he worked. I loved the happy sound of my father’s voice as he began to sing aloud. It also calmed me. For Daddy’s sake, I hoped Big Daddy would be in a visitin’ mood because I knew, as did everyone, that my father worshiped his rogue grandfather, chronic disagreeability and all.
Mornings were reported by Aunt Beulah to be among Big Daddy’s good times, the good part of good times, meaning that he would be lucid and somewhat civil. That is, as far as the word civil could be applied to Big Daddy. As each new day advanced, Big Daddy’s agitation increased while his tolerance for other humans lessened. Aunt Beulah didn’t want him throwing food at his guests or yelling, “What the fuck ya’ll want?” And so, with all this impending fuss, she urged the few folks who continued to endure Big Daddy’s presence, to come early.
The “F” word wasn’t entirely new to me, although it has certainly grown in popularity since those times. Daddy seldom used it back then, usually when he described some sorry person of questionable origin. Only the week before I’d heard him say it, and that had been an exception. As my father stood up from fixing a rent in the kitchen linoleum, he hit his head on the bottom of a cabinet door my mother had left ajar. What followed was him yelling at my mother for, “…never closing a fucking door in your life!” However ugly or infrequently my father cussed, his words could not compare to Big Daddy’s talent for self-expression. Big Daddy was a man who invented foot-long invectives and cussed up a storm without the benefit of a knot on his head. It was just his way.
As the family’s patriarch, my father rationalized it was Big Daddy’s “right” to use outhouse language–an excuse Big Daddy didn’t need, but one my father thought-up in deference to his grandfather’s status.
After years of living a storied life, our Big Daddy had gotten so he couldn’t live by himself anymore, nor with a woman, which had always been his druthers. First off, no thinking female would have him–his good looks had plum run-out, his temper ran unabated and he had become spindly. His money had also dwindled to so little you could count it on one hand, a tool that always fixed a problem when flashed in one-hundred dollar bills, he always said.
Uncle Sibley and Aunt Beulah had to move Big Daddy in with them right after he shot off the mailman’s cap–a bow-legged cracker who braved Big Daddy’s driveway to report that his roadside box was stuffed full. Big Daddy didn’t tolerate trespassers, not even the skinny mailman who should have known better than to rouse him from his nap. By that time, Big Daddy had gone round the bend, sure enough.
My father draped the shammy over Aunt Beulah’s fence and then banged on the porch screen door, causing it to slap against its frame. I waited just behind him, the old anxiety building.
At the clamor, Aunt Beulah waddled out from the kitchen in a gait that gave away the fact that one of her legs was shorter than the other. Her gunmetal hair, plaited in braids pulled up and anchored with black bobby pins which crossed in a big “X” on top of her head, looked neat and orderly. She wiped her wet hands on a floured apron and hollered, “Kinfolk don’t hafta’ knock Glenn, just come on in!” Which we did.
Aunt Beulah led us into the kitchen where my father’s Uncle Sibley pumped Daddy’s hand, pulling him in close with his other, to give him a sweaty hug. I noticed the dark, wet rings drawn under Uncle Sibley’s arms on this awful hot day and his spider-veined face which contained the Janson blue eyes–not just any blue eyes, but trademarks of the family men, which could bore holes in a body. Daddy had ‘em, and so did Big Daddy. I didn’t and that made me sad as I thought they looked like glittering crystal marbles, the color of tinted ice.
“Hey, Uncle Sibley,” my father said, returning his uncle’s grapple. “How’s the old man’s spirits this morning?”
“Granddaddy’s quiet for now and that’s sayin’ somethin’,” Uncle Sibley replied. “Mentions a bell ringin’ and gets all excited. The bell’s a part ‘a gettin’ senile I’m afraid. It comes up several times a day. Ya’ll go on in. He’s awake ‘n done et his breakfast.”
Aunt Beulah nodded her head in the direction of Big Daddy’s bedroom. I felt the butterflies take flight in my stomach.
She led us down the hall to his room, slipping in like she was entering the First Baptist Church, quiet-like and reverent. We followed behind, also quiet as could be.
Aunt Beulah showed me to a rocker where she motioned me to sit, while my father tip-toed over to Big Daddy’s bedside. I can still see the worm-eaten leg of a writing desk, the braided rug it sat upon, the pictures of ducks in flight that hung above the Chester drawers and the backside of my Daddy bent over his grandfather.
I couldn’t get a bead on Big Daddy right then, the hulk of my father’s body blocking my view, but I heard the top sheet rustle and watched as a skinny, liver-spotted leg dropped off the side of the bed. I had never seen such yellow toenails–talons I thought–like something I once saw on a turkey vulture. I also noticed rusty spots in the iron of the bedstead, not unlike the color of Big Daddy’s toes.
“Big Daddy,” my father said gently. “Are you awake, Big Daddy?”
Aunt Beulah came up behind my father and whispered loud enough for me to hear, “Big Daddy cain’t hear you, Glenn. You gotta’ shout.”
“BIG DADDY!” my father hollered, the force of his voice making me jump. I saw the jerk of Big Daddy’s ocher leg before it headed back under the sheet.
Aunt Beulah hurried out of the room, shut the door, closing us in with Big Daddy.
“Fuck, son, I ain’t hard a hearin’!” Big Daddy croaked.
I watched the bottom of the bed sheet move, anxious as all get-out to sneak a peek at my great-grandfather.
My father apologized, spoke more softly, asking him how he felt, patting his shoulder in that rough-gentle way only men know how to do.
Big Daddy wheezed like someone pinched air from a deflating balloon. I craned my neck to get a look. When at last, my father pulled up a chair and sat down, I got an eye full.
I thought my father was big and powerful. By comparison, my great-grandfather had surely shrunk, else acquired such an outrageous reputation that he had only seemed larger than life.
Big Daddy’s white hair stood up all over his head like late spring sticker burrs. His face, dotted with large brown spots, some darker than others, looked like a piece of bruised fruit. He wore a long-sleeved pajama top in the terrible heat, with black stripes set bold against a cream-colored background that made him look as though he had escaped from the federal penitentiary–except it had been the Wetumpka State Penitentiary, and as a leased convict in a coal mine. His prison term was the story my mother liked to tell most often, for it involved a beautiful woman, a brutal murder, and Big Daddy’s “Waterloo”–another term my mother used which I didn’t understand.
Since his entire bare leg dangled over the bed when we first walked in, I imagined that Big Daddy didn’t wear any drawers. However, I was jarred from my thoughts of his nakedness by the cold stare I received from his transparent blue eyes, fixed on mine when his head swiveled my way.
“Hey, Big Daddy,” I said, trying to sound lively, the lump in my throat blocking the volume of my voice.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“Now, Big Daddy,” my father interrupted, “no need cussin’ at your great-granddaughter.
“Jo-Dee Grace is my daughter, Big Daddy. She’s your great-granddaughter,” my father explained.
Big Daddy turned his watery stare on my father.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Glenn, your grandson. Harris is my father, Big Daddy.”
“Who the hell is Harris?” Big Daddy asked.
“Harris is your son and Sibley’s brother!”
“I ain’t got no sons,” Big Daddy growled.
“Sure you do, Big Daddy, you got Harris, Sibley, Didoh, Cecil…”
“Go away,” Big Daddy said in a voice turned low.
My father backed away from the bed and motioned for me to follow him out of the room.
“Bye, Big Daddy,” I said, wiggling my fingers his way, my head still riveted on his remarkable blue eyes. Daddy took hold of my arm and jerked my body over the threshold, my tow-blonde hair the last to exit.
I rubbed my arm which felt separated from its socket. “Why’d we have to leave so fast?” I asked.
“It was the change in Big Daddy’s voice, Jo-Dee. That always means someone’s about to get hurt,” my father said.
Four days later, Big Daddy died.
Aunt Beulah found him when she went in to feed him grits with buttermilk, the only breakfast worth eating in Big Daddy’s estimation–the same one his mama, Mina and old Janie fed him when he was a child, followed by his wife, Eugenie, who died young, and then, Sarah Stretch, and who knew how many other women before Beulah took over his feeding.
At first, Aunt Beulah thought Big Daddy was sleeping. She knew better than to disturb him if he wasn’t ready to wake up. On a second look, she noticed he wore a sweet expression, one she had never before seen. A more studied look showed Beulah that Big Daddy’s head listed off to one side, his chest stone-still. Edging closer, Beulah poked Big Daddy’s shoulder. His head rolled clean off the pillow.