My step-father Edmund Kirby-Smith (great-grandson of the very same) was kind of an awful person. In a shorthand way it may help to note he was best pals with Lee Atwater. Well, he was brought up by a…I think brutally strict father is a fair thing to say about Col. Edmund Kirby-Smith Sr.? Though less strenuously strict fairness compels me to say the Colonel was never anything more than abstractly terrifying to me or my brother and sister, and meant well as near as I could figure. They lived in an isolated home looking down into a valley at the edge of Sewanee, Tennessee, at the top of the last arm of one of an amphitheater of mountains, with trees falling away endlessly down the slope and then more mountains stretching out of view which, if not purple, were at least the lavender of eroded East Coast majesties. To say Edmund’s dad was lord of all he surveyed would understate his power. Just him and his sister—shit went Faulkner wrong up there, is the thing. Maybe sometimes I think he didn’t really have much of a chance to be a good person, although that’s not an actual excuse for failing to be one.
So, yeah, he was sort of your all around bad step-dad. You can use your imagination as long as you don’t go overboard. But father to my beloved, best beloved sister. And he had his moments! He was fun at parties.* I’m not being sarcastic; he really was. We invented games like Jupiter-Ball, which we played with a whole Salvation Army’s worth of bowling balls (we systematically switched the tags on them from badminton rackets), and into the thumb hole of the biggest and black ugliest of which we had hammered a broom handle to use as a mallet. We dug a huge hole in the yard to be the golf-analogue target, and created a ring out of which one would attempt to knock one’s opponents’ ball before they could take the shot. When even that grew boring he helped us carry them all over to the park across the road at 12 a.m. where we took turns sending them down the curly slide and seeing whose could go the furthest into the soft sand. We had some good friends with us, like the liquor store clerk and his girlfriend with the less interesting, less relevant job: electron microscopy. But she could play the fiddle pretty fair and could pee standing up like a man and was willing to do it in front of everyone after a few beers, and so was a worthy addition.
Now, Edmund could often wind things up dramatically with violent destruction and breaking his own hand for the nth time and stuff, but isn’t “who knows what could happen?!” a crucial element of an epic party? Like that time Edmund and Lane and everybody started dressing in drag but in my vintage clothes so they were getting torn and I went up to cry to my mom and she came down the stairs wrapped in a silk dressing gown and fury and hacked a big piece out of the wall in the foyer with a machete? We had a lot of memorable parties.
When my mom and him first got married we were quite unnecessarily broke, and my mom got a job on the assembly line of a factory outside Georgetown, S.C. while my step-dad remained unemployed. That meant he could drive me and my brother to the beach on Pawley’s Island in our 1967 white Camaro convertible with red leather interior before going to get mom from work. I don’t know where he got that car but he had it from before. He would let us stand up in the back with the top down, hands over our head and yelling like crazy, and then we would wait in the parking lot for my mom to come out, playing the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl”. (It will perhaps illustrate the strange confabulation of factors in my life if I mention that I thought the girl in the song had never had a debutante ball. Because “she ain’t come out yet.” I was like 10; I don’t know what I was thinking.) My mom didn’t find any of this amusing, for some reason.
We would go out to a diner and order just fries and cokes and when Edmund wanted to steal fries off your plate he would say “look, it’s Halley’s Comet!” This was his general, all-purpose distractor, benign in intent and more popular among the rest of us than just saying “down, down like glist’ring Phaëton” every damn time somebody came down a flight of stairs. Every. Time. He was a person with sayings. “You look like a Mexican whore on a holiday” was also frequently heard, if less welcome. I was starting to say that I didn’t actually dress that slutty in HS but I don’t think I need to defend myself on that charge. In any case, my favorite outfit was a 1950s white lace housedress which I sewed shut and wore backwards.
So it’s amusing to me to read people using the “look it’s Halley’s Comet” phrase as shorthand, presumably in reference to the evergreen “…and a pony” post from John and Belle Have Ye Olde Blogge (Jesus Christ that was 13 years ago). It’s Edmund Kirby-Smith’s sole internet legacy and it amuses me. I spent a lot of my life hating him but could have gotten all the way around to just feeling sorry for him if he hadn’t hurt people I loved. I got most of the way, anyway.
*Lee Atwater was fun at parties up to a point but would totally hit on 13-year-olds.