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closely while he was shaking and drooling. After a while, the convulsions would subside and Little Johnny would fall asleep in his mother’s arms. This confirmed Maddy’s conviction that the child had been playing too hard and only needed to rest. Maddy could not accept that her youngest child was born with infantile spasms. He was just tired and needed to take a nap. Denying that the child had infantile spasms meant the child did not receive medication for his seizure disorder. If asked about the child’s shaking spells, Maddy would bristle and say, “He just got a little tired, that’s all!” Further inquiry unleashed a tempest of hostility from Maddy. Few would risk the peril of engaging in this battle, for there would be many wounds and no victory.
She was not an educated woman and she had no use for schooling or social refinements. She harbored a shameless hatred for rich folks and wasted no time expressing her feelings in that regard. Sometimes, well, oftentimes the bitter words were out of her mouth before any hint of shame or inhibition crossed her mind.
Maddy was a little frightening to behold. She was a sturdy woman, looking something like last season’s pear, which had fallen from the tree on a hot summer’s day. Having lain unattended in the grass for many days and nights, such a pear retains its basic shape, but looks quite leathery and wrinkled. It has become dehydrated and lost all flexibility. What was once a luscious piece of fruit had become a relic, a timepiece of nature’s progression from youth into old age and decline. When the locals spoke of Maddy they would say, “She’s been rode hard and put up wet.” Or in a mean spirited way you might hear them say, “She’s a tough old hide.” What these remarks failed to reveal is that they secretly feared Maddy, as she was so unpredictable.
She always wore a bright print dress that was two sizes larger than would have looked natural hanging from her shoulders. Her shoes were worn out sandals, sadly beyond repair. Her arms and legs were all stringy muscle and drooping skin. Yet, her abdomen was protruding in an amazing way that seemed to defy gravity. The very fact that she could stand upright and remain balanced seemed unlikely. She felt the need for an oversized dress, to hide what most would consider an unsightly physical appearance. The most frightening thing about Maddy was her contorted facial grimace. Almost edentulous, she had one tooth that pointed upwards towards the sky and another that pointed down towards Mother Earth and below. Her broad grin was enough to strike fear in any man’s heart. And when that raspy voice rang out in a chorus of cursing and menacing commands, even the minions of hell trembled in fear.
It was impossible for those that lived around her to understand why Maddy’s mood changed from day to day. She could be as charming as the yellow rose of Texas on Tuesday, but meaner than a rattlesnake when you next saw her on Thursday. Late at night she could be heard yelling at Haybaler and the other children, especially if Bill was out back tending the still. This is not to say that Maddy was all bad. She loved her children and was nurturing towards them when she was feeling stable, which was most of the time. However, when her mood swings took over she was like a different person altogether. Living with her was a challenging situation, to say the least.
It was a patch work quilt of a family. The filial cloth was somehow held together by the tattered threads of generational loyalty and a shared respect for the magic of distilled spirits. You must understand this much. The old still behind the back shed made Atascosa County’s best moonshine whiskey. Men came from miles around to buy a quart jar of that marvel of distillation. Though illegal, the old still was the main source of revenue for Bill and Maddy Stiles. It helped keep good food on the table for many generations of Haybaler’s clan. So, the still and its crystal clear libation were neither all bad, nor were they all good.
At a very young age Haybaler stumbled upon his father’s moonshine still behind the back shed. The discovery happened one day while Haybaler and Winston, the faithful family dog were walking along one of the wooded trails on Acorn Ridge. The back shed and the still were hidden from sight of the main house. They were farther down the hill and into the woods, with no possible view from the main road. The still was near a level spot on Sorghum Creek, where the flowing water made a bend. At that spot, an old Cottonwood tree stood tall and the water eddied and gurgled into a deep pool. The clear running water was perfect for operating the still and making moonshine.
The shed itself was small and the walls were made of local stone and moss covered mortar. It was a beautiful sight to behold, half covered by an outstanding growth of trumpet vines, with gnarly trunks, abundant dark green leaves and magnificent orange flowers, which bloomed all summer long. Bees and butterflies were forever drawn to the sweet nectar of the large blooms. A pair of antlers was gracefully affixed above the arched doorway of the small rectangular building. Standing inside the shed and peering through an open window, Haybaler was sometimes rewarded by the sighting of a white tailed doe and her fawns drinking from the refreshing pool. The idyllic beauty of this deep country land warmed Haybaler’s heart.
At first Haybaler did not understand what he had found, but he was fascinated by the still and the bottles of sparkling liquid, kept high on the shelf in the old shed. There was row after row of Mason jars gleaming in the morning sunlight. Sometimes the bottles were neatly packed into boxes. And there were six heavy oak casks along one side of the shed, each with its own stand, which held the barrel and its contents a few feet off the floor. The sweet smell of wet oak permeated the room. Even as a young child he could see that the still and the Mason jars of clear liquid where important to his father. After all, he spent a lot time and attention on those things. And sometimes men came to the house late at night to purchase the Mason jars filled with the secretive brew.
His father’s moonshine was always available. If the demand for Bill’s White Lightening was running high, his father would spend the next several days operating the still to make more moonshine. In this way Haybaler learned where his father had been when no one could find him for a few days. He was operating and guarding the clandestine still. This was a serious affair for Bill Stiles. Making moonshine whiskey was a stepwise process, which required a little knowledge and a fair amount of skill. Although there had never been a raid on the still, nonetheless, Haybaler’s father always felt the need to keep his rifle handy.
Not surprisingly, Haybaler tried sipping the clear liquid at an early age. He quickly learned this was not like drinking water. The first swallow burned going down, and made him feel silly. He didn’t like it and would not try it again. However, Haybaler’s younger brother Jason liked the clear, hot liquid, a lot. He, too, had discovered the back shed and the still, which produced the amazing libation. Jason said drinking moonshine was like playing a game and having fun. Surprisingly, Jason never got caught stealing a Mason jar or two from the back shed.
Initially, Jason enjoyed his secret game of drinking alcohol before going to school. As time passed, Jason noticed it was so much easier to be around other people after a drink of daddy’s moonshine. It was especially easier to be around mama when she was having one of her yelling spells. It seemed like mama’s angry words didn’t hurt as much when he had imbibed in daddy’s brew. He was thankful that the demigods of moonshine seemed to protect him from the wrathful words of his mother, which could wound so deeply.
Unfortunately, during Jason’s teenage years his drinking escalated. He began to believe he could not navigate the usual activities of daily life without first having a drink. Jason reasoned that since mama and daddy drink, why shouldn’t he? To Jason, it seemed like everyone was happier when they were drinking moonshine, at least on the surface. At some dimly defined point during his teenage years, he had sacrificed a piece of himself over to the demigods of distilled spirits, in exchange for having the pains of daily life temporarily assuaged.
The stage was set early on for Jason to become an alcoholic. Initially, he drank for fun. Later, he drank to avoid social anxiety and make uncomfortable feelings go away. Later still, he drank to keep from going thro
ugh the agonies of alcohol withdrawal. Growing up, his means of coping with problems had always been alcohol. As he grew, Jason thought the problems in his life were so immense, that only the ebb and flow of the tide of distilled spirits would suffice to quiet the waves that were pounding the stormy shores of his suffering. As time went by, the blissful amnesia of the next drink became paramount to any other concern.
Jason’s problems with alcohol peaked during his senior year of high school. Partying seemed harmless to Jason and his circle of friends. He had long ago lost the ability to ignore the craving for alcohol. On any given day the desperation for alcohol was felt on a deep and cellular level. His gut would ache for the next drink. With trembling hands he would pour the clear liquid from the Mason jar into the glass. Thus, Jason had become a practicing alcoholic even before finishing high school.
Jason had no idea what to do after graduation. There were no jobs to speak of in Pleasanton, Texas. Just before graduation day, the Army Recruiter had been in the high school auditorium talking with some of the students. The Recruiter made Army