THE MAN WHO HUNG THE MOON
(A story from my family's history)
She never spoke about her parents, except to say they had been murdered. That was enough to shut me up as a kid eight years old. Her given name was Florence Avery. For some reason, I called her Groogie.
Florence Avery hailed from Tennessee. She was short, spunky and no nonsense. I never saw her smile—except to catch sight of me walking into her room. She referred to me as her “Little Pal.”
She once explained to me how her husband had cut down enough trees to build the house they lived in. According to my Grandpa, his mom saw first light of day the year the Civil War ended. Years later, I learned that was the year Lincoln was shot, 1865.
Funny thing about being a small child, you don’t ask about things you’d really want to know later on when you’re an adult. For instance, I would ask Groogie about being chased on her way from Tennessee by Apaches with stone axes and a rusted rifle swung by one of the braves like a sledge hammer at the skull of their wagon master.
I did ask her, “Why?”
“Why did the Apaches want to hurt you?”
I expected a curt reply. I was wrong.
Groogie was the most definite person I’ve ever met; not one to flinch or shrug. Her opinion was at the ready. That particular question seemed to come at her unexpected like. She just shook her head side to side and raised one eyebrow.
“Nobody I knew hesitated to kill them, so why not?”
Groogie’s husband was a lawman in Tennessee. He read a notice hanging in the local Post Office offering a job as a sheriff’s deputy in Fort Worth, Texas. He responded by gathering everything he owned into a Conestoga wagon won in an epic poker game. Along with his wife they set out for Tarrant County in Texas along with three other travelers as part of a small wagon train. That was probably 1880 when they arrived in Cowtown.
Groogie’s husband, Matt Avery, loved to gamble. No sooner did she start talking about him and her pale blue eyes turned glassy with tears. She’d gaze off nowhere in particular and her voice took on a weird softness of tone.
I heard the words, “Feast or famine” a lot explaining his losing streaks throughout their brief marriage. Sometimes he’d be gone for days at a time.
He chased after lost money or pursued trying to double his winnings the few times Lady Luck showed up. Groogie made sure that was the only Lady at the gambling house, too. She carried a pearl-handle pistol and made no bones about it—“If I’d ever caught him cheatin’ on me, I’d have drilled him.”
That shut me up. I hoped she was bluffing.
Grandpa told me Matt Avery had a habit of bring home jewelry when he won big money. There was once a beautiful gold watch, hand-crafted by a French artisan, he brought home and placed on her wrist. She described the day with a writer’s attention to detail. He held her tight and made promises.
She sometimes spoke about her husband with the words, “That man hung the moon, as far as I was concerned.”
Instead of telling him, she’d pretend to be cross.
“You damn sure better bring something home after being gone three days!”
That’s all she’d own up to telling him. According to my grandpa, she treasured that gift more than anything else. She chose to see it as proof he really loved her. It was the first gift she’d ever received in her life till then.
Months later, he’d come into the house and begged her to let him sell the watch to pay off gambling debts. She refused by grabbing a broom and beating him over the head with it. Two nights later, Avery was shot in the back in downtown Ft. Worth. The killer was never identified. Grandpa told me friends were convinced the man he’d owed the money to had collected in blood. Groogie was never the same woman after that. She carried a heavy burden on her conscience.
She once referred to his killer as, “The Man who stole the moon.”
Groogie remarried to a blacksmith who labored as a boiler maker. He was named Hybarger and he was a tough German fellow with a handlebar mustache. This was my grandpa’s dad.
Matthew Hybarger could build anything with his hands. It was dirty work too, but he remained spotless.
“I’d look at his hands expecting to see rough, raw, bulky paws considering the kind of work he did. Instead, I saw hands more beautiful than any lady’s—delicate and well-groomed; nails clipped and buffed to perfection. He had bare feet to match, too.”
I’d never heard a conversation like that directed at a man. I shrugged and felt slightly uncomfortable.
Matthew Hybarger built a real house for Groogie on the Southside of Fort Worth. Around the house he planted every kind of useful tree: pecan tree, peach tree, apricot tree, blackberry vines, and such. He planted a garden with wisteria, four o’clock, and honeysuckle—then constructed elaborate trellis arboretum platforms around which the vines could twist. “Where the woodbine twineth and the vine dieth not.” she quoted. From where, I know not.
When their only child was born, a real battle broke out in the Hybarger household concerning what the son would be named. Matthew had come up with Jack Hybarger. His wife wanted a middle name added. Everything was agreed until Hybarger learned the name Avery was the dead husband’s name.
All hell broke loose until the child was born at home in 1890. The drunken German boiler maker staggered in and tipped his hat to the midwife and gave apology with grand gestures and flowery speechifying. He then held his child, kissed him on the cheek and handed him back to his mother.
“Avery it is!”
It was all he said before staggering back out in the street and falling asleep under a chinaberry tree. After that, the marriage came together without discord.
Jack Avery Hybarger reached the age of 12. The elder Hybarger accompanied his son downtown to rubberneck in the crowd. Buffalo Bill Cody clip-clopped down Main Street doffing his hat in a parade accompanying the Wild West Show. The little boy ran up to the old buffalo hunter and grabbed his stirrup and shouted at him how happy he was to see the parade and all the horses. Cody, notoriously mean-spirited around children, kicked the boy with his boot and cantered away in a shower of gravel and mud. This story became oft-repeated in the household when the great grandson came along. That would be me, your storyteller.
It was a freak accident. As he was inside smoothing the pitted edges off fastening rivets, a can of Naptha spilled inside and he was overcome by fumes. Matthew Hybarger died unexpectedly inside one of the eight foot long boilers his shop constructed. His comatose body was recovered by workmen returning from lunch. He never regained consciousness. He was returned to his wife in that condition where he remained under her care for ten days before he passed.
As a lifetime member of the Odd Fellows Lodge, the widow was annually accorded a gift of a large basket of fruit and nuts. As a small child, I marveled at the size of the basket and I never failed to ask her to tell me the story of her husband’s death. She told the tale matter-of-factly and without emotion. Only when I asked about her first husband did things change inside of her.
“You wouldn’t understand.” That’s as much as I could get. I’m much older now. I think I finally do understand. Let me explain. . .
My Uncle Jack picked me up from Morningside Elementary School that afternoon in his red convertible Corvette. The year was 1958 and I was 11 years old. I was always thrilled when Jack suddenly showed up. I hoped the other students would see him with me and jump to the conclusion he was probably my father. I didn’t have a dad. I was deeply embarrassed by it.
As I scooted across the seat and looked up at my Uncle, he turned to me and said these chilling words.
“Groogie died today. I’m supposed to take you the shoe store to buy you some shoes for her funeral.”
With that, off we drove and I choked back the tears my Uncle Jack hated seeing. I swallowed hard and tried to stifle the overwhelming sense of loss and sorrow.
How I got through that afternoon I cannot say. In my household, only one emotion ever found its way to the surface and that was rage. Tears were for sissies and people weak and without character.
At the funeral parlor, I lined up to view the body. The corpse of my great-grandmother looked unreal, like a department store manikin.
I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and it was like ice. I couldn’t understand why.
The Pastor came over to me after services and handed me a small, thin box wrapped in plain brown paper.
“This is something Florence—I mean, your Groogie, wanted you to have. Your name was on it.”
I opened it up.
There was inside, wrapped in a thin piece of delicate red velvet, the most beautiful gold watch I’d ever seen.
On the back, tiny engraved letters spelled out some message. I squinted in the semi-darkness of the funeral home.
"From the man who hung the moon to the girl with the blue eyes. Love always."