“It’s the things you don’t see that kill you.” My cousin Del-Ray told me that more than once and I believed him because if anyone knew it was Del-Ray.
Del-Ray grew up mean and crazy in a run down trailer park near Clinch Mountain. He was skinny as a rail and always hungry and had a tussled patch of red hair atop his head that never stayed combed and he loved to fight. As a kid he’d eat dirt and play with snakes. He even had a pet copperhead until the snake bit him. That’s when Del-Ray crushed its head with a rock and just before going to the hospital said. “There’s more where that one came from and if they don’t behave, I’ll kill them too.”
Del-Ray would fight kids twice his size and if they beat him he would show up the next day with a tire iron swiped from his daddy’s tool box. If Del-Ray couldn’t whip you one way, he’d damn sure whip you another. It was all plain and simple to him. You used any trick or weapon available to win the fight. “Fairness is for dummies” said Del-Ray. Many is the time I have see him smile and shake someone’s hand then in the next instance cut them with his pocket knife.
There wasn’t anyone or anything the boy was scared of. Once in high school, a football lineman threatened Del-Ray and before anyone could stop the fight Del grabbed a broken coke bottle from a trash can and sliced open the boy’s face from chin to ear. Del-Ray did six months in juvenile detention for assault, but he didn’t care. “Sum-Beech shouldn’t have threatened me” was all Del-Ray had to say about it and that was the end of story. Del-Ray was never wrong and he never tried reasoning with anyone. For him a disagreement and a fight were one in the same.
“Del-Ray what on god’s earth are you doing wearing that bottle opener around your neck?” Del grinned. We were drinking beer and listening to the jukebox and I’d just come home from the Navy and Del was helping me celebrate. “Cause I like it, like I like you little cousin” he said. Later that night Del started a fight with a biker and after the biker hit him square between the eyes Del got off the floor and used the opener’s sharp end to cut off the biker’s ear. ‘So that’s why he’s wearing a bottle opener’ I thought. Del-Ray was full of surprises.
Del-Ray always went armed, even if he didn’t carry a gun. Everything was a weapon in Del-Ray’s mind, especially sharp instruments like pencils, forks, kitchen knives and screwdrivers. And heaven forbid if he laid his hands on a pool cue, or a piece of lumber because then things really got nasty.
I remember one weekend we were shooting pool at the Indian Rock lounge out on highway 11-W. Del-Ray was hustling these two guys from Morristown and was doing pretty good, too. Heck, Del must have won close to a hundred dollars when one of the guys wised up to what was happening and told Del that he wasn’t paying him a dime, much less the fifty dollars he owed. Del-Ray said nothing. He just grinned real big and with one swipe of his pool cue knocked the boy out cold. Then Del-Ray beat up the other one for good measure. Del-Ray never got his money, but he did spend a year in jail.
Funny thing about Del-Ray was that going to jail never bothered him. It was sort of like old home week, you know the place and time where he caught up with most of his friends. I’d always visit Del when he was incarcerated and he’d be grinning and joking and smiling and telling me everything he was going to do when he got out and how good things were inside. Then he’d get out of jail and for a month or so behave, but it was never long before he started drinking and fighting again.
Del-Ray was a good carpenter and that’s how he earned a living. He could build anything from a house to a barn to a bridge. Carpentry came natural to him and through the week he worked sun up to sundown, but come payday you wouldn’t see Del-Ray until he’d spent his entire check on beer and whiskey. He’d stay drunk for days on end and when the money was gone Del-Ray would sober up and go back to work. That’s just how he was. Like me, or leave me was Del-Ray’s attitude towards life. Most of us tried liking him. It was much safer that way.
“Never let’em see the punch coming” Del-Ray told me and more than once I saw him apologize to someone, turn to leave, then spin around real fast and catch the unsuspecting person with a haymaker. Del-Ray made sucker punching into an art form.
One time, in this little roadside honky-tonk, Del-Ray sucker punched this college boy who called Johnny Paycheck a dumb redneck. The following night the college boy showed up again only with three friends who intended to repay Del-Ray for what he had done. Four against one is pretty good odds, but it was Del-Ray they were fighting and he just went plumb crazy that night. He cut two of the boys with a pocket knife, bit one’s ear off and damn near killed the other one with a pool cue. That little escapade landed Del-Ray in the penitentiary for two years, eleven months and twenty-nine days. When the judge read his sentence Del-Ray just grinned.
After Del-Ray got out of prison he came home and started working as a carpenter. For almost a year he stayed out of trouble then one payday he returned to his errant ways. Del-Ray had spent the night drinking in a bar out on highway 32 and was driving home the following morning in his old pickup truck when a Honda civic cut in front of him and he spilled beer all over his lap.
Del-Ray went ballistic and started shouting and cussing and flipping the Honda driver off. Then Del sped up, ran the Honda into the ditch, slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his truck. Witnesses said Del-Ray stood in the middle of the highway cussing a blue streak before walking back to the Honda and trying to drag the driver from his car. That was Del-Ray’s fatal mistake. You see, the Honda driver was this middle-aged school teacher who had a firearms permit and when Del-Ray reached into the car the teacher placed his Smith&Wesson 38 special against Del-Ray’s forehead and pulled the trigger. There was a loud pop, the back of Del-Ray’s head exploded into a crimson sheet of blood and brains and he crumpled to the pavement dead.
The judge ruled self-defense, which it was, and as I stood looking down into the coffin at Del-Ray’s lifeless body I whispered. “You were right Del-Ray it’s the things you don’t see that kill you.”
Copyright 2012 by Michael Rosenbaum