Mandy Newham-Cobb illustration
The first time I became aware of what it meant to be “outside looking in,” I was nine years old. It was a cold, snowy day in December and my cat, Bobbie was asleep in front of the fireplace. I was reading my favorite “funny book” about Sub-mariner when my grandfather came in from outside, picked Bobbie up, opened the door and pitched him out. Bobbie, climbed the screen door where he hung meowing piteously and staring through the glass panel in the front door.
This performance angered my grandfather even more. He finally opened both doors, plucked Bobbie from the screen and pitched him into one of my grandmother’s giant boxwoods below the porch.
That did it. Within a matter of minutes, I had on my mackinaw, my toboggan and my new Christmas gloves, grabbed a chunk of cornbread from the “warming closet” of my grandmother’s Home Comfort stove, filched a mayonnaise jar from the cabinet, and I was out the door. While the family gawked through the window, I crawled under the boxwood, found Bobbie, and we set out for the barn. In my stubborn little head, I had decided to “run away.” Bobbie and I were going to live in the barn loft.
Eventually, my grandfather trudged to the barn and stood in the feed-room calling my name.
“GarNell, are you up there?”
I didn’t say anything.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“Me and Bobbie are going to live over here from now on.”
“You know I can’t stand a cat in the house.”
I didn’t say anything.
“What the hell are you going to do with that mayonnaise jar?”
“Get some milk from the cow.” I thought that was pretty clever. I had planned ahead.
Grandpa snorted. “You are acting like your crazy Momma.”
“Maybe me and Bobbie will go live with her in Knoxville.”
“Come on back to the house. We are having leather britches and pintos tonight.”
“Can Bobbie come too?”
Grandpa said something I didn’t hear. Then, he said, “Bring the damned cat and come on.”
Back at the house, I took a seat at the dinner table where Uncle Ardell and Aunt Snookie sat glaring at me.
“Lord, what a aggrevating young’en,” said Aunt Snookie.
“You need to blister his little bottom for him, Daddy,” said Uncle Ardell. Then, he reached across the table and gave me a smack on the side of my head. “Shape up, Runt.” That was his nick-name for me. Then, he would usually stare at me and say, “I don’t see nothing of Lyndon in him.” He was talking about my father, who was dead, shot by a drunk in his little store up in Moody’s Bottom. “I see a lot of Gilmore, though.” Now, he was talking about my mother who had left me on the front porch and caught the bus for Knoxville.
After Uncle Ardell got out of the Navy, he and Snookie, his new wife, had come to live with us. They got my bedroom and I had to sleep on the couch which I didn’t mind since I could listen to the big Silvertone radio. I played it real low, but Snookie would sometimes come in the middle of the night and cut it off while I was listening to “Suspense” or “The Shadow.”
“We are trying to sleep!”
“Don’t sound like it to me.” (They made a lot of noise back there sometimes.)
“You better watch it, buster. I’m sick of you sneaking around spying on Ardell and me.”
So, here we sat, Bobbie and me. I got a saucer and gave Bobbie some milk. Snookie was complaining about the “lack of privacy” in the house and Ardell was nodding agreement.
“Where am I supposed to go,” I said.
“How about to hell,” said Ardell, and laughed.
I decided to do my best imitation of the Shadow, including that great laugh he had.
“What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows! Haa, haa, haa, haa, haa!”
“What does that mean?” said Ardell.
“Oh, it is something that he gets out of those awful programs that he listens to, or them funny books that he is already reading,” said Snookie.
“He is already quare enough without that stuff,” said Ardell.
Grandpa gave a heartfelt sigh, got up and went to stand on the back porch and stare at the Balsam mountains.
I got my new issue of “Sub-mariner” and settled on the couch. I liked Prince Namor who lived in the depths of the ocean. He rarely visited the human cities because they were inhabited by petty, foolish humans.
In the years following that wintery day, I spent a lot of time with Namor or with Lamont Cranston (the Shadow), or Captain Marvel. Movies, books and radio dramas were an escape into a world where my companions were “outsiders” too. Even now, almost 70 years after Bobbie and I fled to the barn, I sense a subtle shift in certain people’s attitudes when I lapse into my mountain dialect. I am outside again, and if I close my eyes, I see Prince Namor beckoning, offering escape, “Come Home, GarNell, to a place where the inhabitants are as strange as you.”