The Big Bang
In the snapshot I’m five years old, leaning against my father’s silver Chevy Impala, frowning from a throbbing pain. It’s June 1975 in central Indiana.
My skull is wrapped in bright white bandages covering most of my unwashed hair, and my sullen eyes look away from the camera, toward whom or what I can’t recall. But I do remember having that picture taken beside a hazy, half-grown cornfield where my parents had built a brick one story next to my mom’s mother—Grandma—and her quiet second husband. Though he wasn’t in the photo with me, my brother Alan stood nearby, his own blood-soaked dressings from a shoulder wound hidden beneath his t-shirt. Almost 13 with coke-bottle glasses and a broad, muscular chest, he was “built more like a Burkhart than a Muse,” Mom said, referring to her own dad, Buck, Grandma’s first husband.
Of course, I was tiny back then, maybe three-and-a-half feet tall, 45 pounds or so, but in bandages I stood out like a war vet just home from Vietnam. I had 16 stitches in my head sealing a jagged five-inch gash, two more on my nose and six through my left eyebrow. The black threads dangled in my peripheral vision a little above and a little below my eye, and I dabbed at the ones in my swollen nostril, wondering if I’d broken my face. I’d never felt pain like that, at least nothing I can recall now.
The sutures were sewn in southern Kentucky where Alan and I had wrecked a minibike into a barbed wire fence—an accident, everyone said to each other, though I sensed an unspoken blame. A few weeks earlier, Dad had given the minibike to Alan as a gift for growing up, the way blue-collar men doted on their sons in oil-stained driveways throughout the Midwest. He bought it used from a Chrysler coworker on the east side of Indianapolis, on a whim perhaps and certainly without any helmets. In any case I thought it was beautiful—toy-like but tough, its knobby tires and burgundy paint job paired with a shiny chrome muffler. It was my brother’s, I knew, but I beamed about it all the same, and the weeknight Dad came home with it, I begged and begged for a ride.
“No,” Mom said. “You’re too small. Stay off it.”
What if I had listened to her? What would I remember then?
Two days before the scene in the photograph, Dad had taken Alan and me to visit his maternal grandparents near Glasgow, Kentucky, down Highway 90 in the red clay hills crowding the Tennessee line. We called them Mama and Papa Shaw, a surname that came from Scotland, though the British Isles were a world away in picture books and TV shows. We ate Mama’s biscuits and gravy for breakfast and took slop out back to the hogs. We sat in the carport with Dad as he pulled beer after beer from a white Styrofoam cooler. Papa Shaw was in his eighties, which made him the oldest person we knew, wearing a faded green John Deere ball cap and mumbling strangely to himself. He would lean over his red leather armchair to spit tobacco into a brass can, the floor spattered with his misses, some sticky, others wet. I giggled when the soles of my shoes felt gluey as he pulled me in close by surprise, then my eyes would settle on the glistening slurry in the depths of his sour spittoon. Fear, fascination, half-hugs—a great-grandkid’s kind of love.
Not long after we arrived on a Friday, Dad pulled out the minibike from the Impala’s cavernous trunk, thinking it would help his eldest son endure a long weekend away from home. Mom had stayed behind in Indiana to nurse a boil on her leg and a staph infection, though even then, I later learned, their marriage was nearing its end. That afternoon and well into Saturday, Alan zoomed up and down Cherokee Trail Road, the gravel lane that angled off the highway beyond the clover-covered front yard. Barefoot and shirtless, I stood near the mailbox in a pair of royal blue cotton shorts, wondering where my big brother went whenever he sped away. From that location I could also see our dad sitting with Mama and Papa Shaw in the carport. He was relaxing on the swing, smoking a cigarette and holding an aluminum can. He was always smoking and drinking. Back then I thought nothing of it.
And at the time no one had any idea that Alan was teasing two dogs at the end of the dead-end lane, doing what any kid might do, thoughtless of the repercussions. Each trip he’d stop in front of a neighbor’s house and crank the minibike’s throttle in neutral, until the animals would come running, furious at the noise. I couldn’t hear the commotion—it was nearly a mile away. All I knew was each time Alan returned, he was smiling, even laughing. So in that moment when he slid back on his seat, offering to take me for a spin, I didn’t think about our mother’s warning, let alone shoes or clothes or a helmet. Instead, I climbed onto the metal gas tank and felt its heat spread along my thighs, felt the whine of the engine vibrate beneath me, felt my eyes fill with tears in the wind. In a flash we zipped down the road, the ground blurring beneath my tanned feet, and soon we were revving at the turnaround, riling up two farmhouse dogs.
When Alan popped the clutch, rocks ricocheted under the fenders, and the minibike crouched like a wild creature as its tires dug into the gravel. A fierce sensation flowed through me as barks and snarls appeared alongside our legs. Angry teeth gnashed near our kneecaps. The dogs’ hair stood on end. My heart seized as I squeezed the handlebars between Alan’s arms and white-knuckled hands, and I could feel his right leg twitch as he clicked through the racing gears. The minibike blazed down the road with a tail of billowing dust, and my fright gave way to a thrilling rush—the elation of escape.
That minibike was fast. I sure do remember that.
Perhaps a memory of our wreck lies somewhere deep inside me: twisted metal tearing through my hair and then nearly through my left eyeball. Or maybe it was from the other direction as I tumbled helplessly through the air: a single fence barb first clawing my nostril, then my brow and tender skull.
But the only moment I can recall is standing in the road after we wrecked, the sharp rocks like broken glass beneath my shoeless feet. My chest heaved with sobs, my head stung and spun, and everything was red and blurry. The minibike ticked as its engine cooled, lying in the ditch muffler-side-up. Black cows lingered like shadows, their tails swinging in the afternoon heat. Their mouths gnawed at the silvery grass flattened by the wreck. The barbed wire held them back as I rose to my blood-spattered feet, and the gravel felt like a thousand slivers cutting me with every step.
My brother didn’t black out, though adrenaline masked the instant when his shoulder raked the barbed wire fence. We had shot off the road after hitting a pothole, the dogs trailing close behind us. Stunned by my screaming, he watched me leak like a cracked jar onto a dry, spotless kitchen floor, the liquid streaming down my half-naked body into dust slightly less red. Then he picked me up, running back to the dog owner’s farmhouse. What did she think, I wonder, and how did we get past her animals? When I asked Alan about it recently, he said the dogs didn’t even bark.
For me, all that remains of the wreck are snippets from the long hours that followed. I remember a stranger’s damp towels on my face as she wiped again and again and again. I remember the echo in our great-grandparents’ house as high voices debated what to do. And I remember lying across Uncle Stanley’s lap in the front seat of the silver Impala. My legs pressed into my father’s thighs as I writhed back and forth in pain, and as we sped to the hospital in Glasgow, Stanley held a compress to my oozing head. Pulling aside my hair, he spoke with a deep, accent-heavy drawl. “Keith,” he said somberly, “I found what’s bleedin’ so much.”
I remember, too, the look on Dad’s face as he cried with his hands on the wheel. It was the first time I’d ever heard him swear, his bloodshot eyes filled with what looked like fear. “I never shoulda bought that fuckin’ minibike!” he said, the curse word percussive and desperate. I heard him say it at least one more time as a nurse clinched my hand through stitches. Twenty-four in all. Needles, tweezers, scissors.
I wish I could recall when we pulled into our driveway back in Indiana on Sunday morning. Dad had traveled from his birthplace in Kentucky probably dozens, if not hundreds, of times. But how did he feel on this trip north with his two silent sons in tow? And what did Mom feel when she saw a silver car turn slowly in front of the house? I imagine her in shorts and a halter-top walking out to meet us, her jaw rigid with adult emotions, her own eyes glassy with fear. Was she furious or heartbroken at the sight of us? Did Dad hang his head with guilt? Did his breath smell like alcohol, or was he sober for this reunion? All I know is what I see in the photograph, how I leaned against the Impala in bandages, my expression a mixture of discomfort and distraction, sadness, maybe disgrace. I wore a button-up shirt with blue pinstripes over a t-shirt with a blood-smeared collar, punishing for a little boy at the height of summer, soon to start the first grade.
Human lives read like reckless stories—flawed, damaged, tragic. Even the mind lies beyond our control—the images and feelings we hold onto, the ones we unknowingly let go. But looking at that grainy picture of myself leaning against my father’s Chevy sedan, I’m transported back into the bandages, the stitches, the confusion. Of course, I don’t need that 40-year-old photo to return to that painful moment. I can slide a finger through my thick brown hair to trace a ridge of scar tissue. And whenever I cut my hair short, everyone can see it. On the occasion someone asks about it, I look for his scars in turn.
Still, I can’t help but wonder about that little boy wrestling with blame. He not only wrecked his face, he thought, but also his parents’ marriage. My mom tells me divorce was inevitable—my father drank and chased women early on—and that I was only five years old, my brother not even teenager. But coincidence seems too simple an explanation because I recall turning six that July, when Dad sat with me on the edge of my bed and handed me a gift to open. As I pulled out a green sweatshirt with a large red “6” across the front, he said that it matched my age, that I was getting big, growing up. Perhaps it was then or shortly afterward that he told me he was moving out. Though I didn’t understand why at the time, I felt responsible for it.
Now, nearly twice the age of my father at the time of the minibike wreck, I think about how one weekend can reveal everything that a family is and perhaps all that it will become. My mother has since remarried and divorced a second time, though she still resides near Grandma, who, alongside her third husband, is losing her memory to dementia. Mom put two kids through college, started a business that’s lasted 30 years, and never have I seen her second-guess a decision regarding the men in her life. My brother has done well too, gotten married, had three kids of his own, though he nags with a sense of responsibility that for many years he directed at me. When our father died in 1998, due in part to his lifelong drinking, I think Alan and his wife felt an awkward relief that Dad would no longer stop by. I know it’s different for him. He remembers more than I do.
As for me, I have no children, though I write this on my tenth wedding anniversary, and my wife and I often look at photographs, tell stories, try to explain things. That’s how we came upon this image of me, smileless and withdrawn at five years old, standing beside my father’s car, a new house amid knee-high cornfields. If Paula and I did have kids, I wonder, would we fret over them every moment? Maybe we’d never buy a minibike, but there’d always be something, right? Sports, a skateboard, roughhousing with cousins, a parent’s distraction or weakness or addiction. How does any child reach adulthood unscathed? How does any family go unburdened? I may not be a father myself, but I can understand one’s regrets.
Scientists say the universe was born some 13 billion years ago—the Big Bang theory, our best explanation for the origin of everything. Before then, the theory suggests, all matter was infinitely dense, bound together in a single whole as extremely hot, unstable matter. No time or space as we know it, then suddenly … existence.
That weekend I experienced my own Big Bang, or maybe during the weeks surrounding it, because try as I might I remember nothing of our lives before the spring of 1975. Sure, there are earlier photographs, the four of us huddling together. I’m smiling. My brother’s smiling. Mom and Dad are too. Yet it seems like someone else’s life, beyond not only memory but also comprehension. I can’t even conceive of us together like the universe before existence.
What should I make of this realization, not just the absence, but what is there—my first memories of my father’s drinking, his drowning eyes as we raced to the hospital? And what about Mom’s “adult emotions,” her body language as we opened our car doors? Though I can’t recall that exact moment, I’ve watched her for decades since. Men have failed her too often, even her own dad, Buck.
Then there’s my big brother Alan, whose scars look worse than my own. The barbed wire sliced through his knuckles and furrowed his muscular shoulder. Everyone was so worried about me that they neglected to take him to the hospital. Instead, Mama Shaw scrubbed his wounds, and scrubbed and scrubbed some more. I imagine him enduring her vein-laced hands, the coarse washrag, and scalding bathwater, his guilt rising as sure as blood, expanding to its own sort of galaxy.
Then again, I’m the one who begged and begged him for a ride. Maybe what happened is my fault: a kid can steer his whole family. I remember gripping the handlebars. I remember the dogs.
“The Big Bang” originally appeared in Poydras Review. Copyright Jeff Darren Muse, 2013.
Photo: Still there—the barbed wire fence along Cherokee Trail Road. Photo: JEFF DARREN MUSE
- accident, addiction, alcohol, bike, blood, brother, cornfield, dogs, essay, family, father, Kentucky, memory, mind, mother, scar, son, stitches, The Big Bang Theory, wreck
- March 18, 2014