Tag Archives: memoir

House Rules

By Steven Williams

Man was made to sweat. This has been the universal truth since the first mandate was broken. The rule was evident in every facet of my life, from the sermons at Calvary Baptist to the gangster rap my brothers and I listened to while our parents were away. Though he knew nothing of the latter, Lamar was the exemplar of this ideal. The natural corollary was that women were made to serve. These dynamics showed up in both the Gospels and Jazzy Belle, so we never thought to question them.

We walked with Lamar throughout the city, three curly-headed, light-skinned boys who were made to stay “on the inside” of their stepfather, arranged by age, the youngest farthest from the street. Lamar was a deacon at Calvary, though one would believe him to be a preacher. Walks, bus trips and train rides were all valuable moments to instill discipline and respect for hierarchy into three exhausted children. The underlying theme remained constant as it wove through his endless stories. If a man did not work, he was no man. For women, there was no choice – you were a lover, a mother or a whore.

As the oldest, I was expected to set the example for the other two. We constantly fought, more often against neighborhood kids than among ourselves. When Jeremy would come home with a torn shirt and bloody lip, I was scolded for not taking up for family. We three were just as often the instigators of these front yard brawls as the victims, so we knew the rules quite well. But any explanation fell on deaf ears. Fight etiquette dictated that there was to be no assistance if both parties contained an equal number of participants. We won and lost fights based on our own merit.

On the occasions that David was caught stealing, I would be reprimanded alongside him. He and I found that Sunday school loophole quite early and realized we could commit any sin as long as we repented during evening prayers. We avoided eternal damnation and still got T.I.’s debut album on release day. I prided myself on my ability to locate and discard security tags unnoticed, and I was prouder still of the contraband carefully hidden throughout the house. God was capable of forgiveness. My parents were not.

My siblings and I remained fairly unconcerned with whatever punishments were meted out, save for the whippings. Whenever an offense involved all three of us, it was much more convenient for Lamar to have us strip down, underwear to ankles, dish out an equal amount of licks and be done with the thing altogether. Whichever stepson he decided to hit first had it the worst, simply for the sheer uncertainty. The other two would count the strikes, and would at least know how many they were expected to receive. The first could only hope that the previous swing was the final one. When Lamar was finished with us, he would hang his cracked leather belt back upon the hook on the bedroom door, where it stood as our own personal guillotine in the town square.

At night, after “Monday Night Raw” gave way to infomercials, I would sit with my stepfather as he talked about the day’s work. Over the years, he had been a chef at almost every fine dining establishment in the city, but he never settled in one place for long, for there were circumstances that always seemed beyond his control. There were fights in a few kitchens. Another had far too many faggots for his liking. I would stay and listen while my mother put the others to bed. If anything happened to him, he told me, I would be the man of the house. My mother was a strong woman, but that’s all she was. She needed support.

The summer I turned 15, Lamar and I spoke with his manager, and I was hired on at his restaurant to do errand work. That summer was spent in the dish pit, in the freezer and outside sweeping cigarette butts, and I couldn’t have been happier. We would ride the train up to Five Points in the early dawn and unlock the back door with a key hidden in a lamp post. We set the chairs in silence. We cut bread crust to make croutons. When the delivery truck arrived, we signed off on the meats and I would grind and prepare the required amount for the day. This was work, and it was good.

The other employees would show up soon after the initial prep, and I was greeted with handshakes and nods. I traded dirty jokes and talked shit with grown men I’d never met before. There were certain topics and boundaries that were off limits, yet what those boundaries were was never clearly defined. I was simply expected to know them. Though I wasn’t exactly a fan of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” I understood that any request to change the radio station would be summarily ignored. When I entered the restroom before store open to find two chefs on the verge of blows, I knew to leave for the time being and afterwards, to admit nothing to management. For me, this unspoken acceptance further established my passage into manhood.

I worked at a couple of other places throughout the next two years, but none of them held the thrill of the first. These jobs felt more like the drudgery that I grew up hearing about. At my first fast food job, my checks frequently came up short, the schedule often changed without notice, and my supervisors could have found fault with Christ Himself should He have decided to pick up a shift. In retaliation, my breaks gradually got longer, and the amount of work I accomplished while on the clock was minimal. When the school year resumed, I offered my two-weeks notice, and they fired me on the spot. I grabbed my jacket and filled the pockets full of cookie dough to eat on the way home. I had always walked to work, as my mother needed the car to get to her job, and Lamar refused to learn to drive. When I asked why, he responded with anger and accusations of intentional disrespect. I found that the best questions were those that remained unanswered.

The next job I held was in a failing wing joint in the far corner of a rundown mall. I began work three days after the initial interview with no paperwork filed. The head manager bought the place from the prior owner only a month before, and he wasted no time running the company into the ground. His first order of business was to stop selling alcohol altogether. Our Savior wouldn’t serve booze, he reasoned, and so neither would we. The attached area for bar seating was decorated with approximately ten neon beer signs, advertising all the wonderful things our customers couldn’t buy. Thus it became my job to stand behind the bar and explain that we didn’t actually serve beer, our manager just thought the signs looked nice, and that he refused to turn them off. To combat the inevitable sales drop, my boss had hired a man with a steel drum to play along to instrumental Peter Tosh songs that crackled from a cheap stereo in the main dining area. The drummer was hired for three hours every Wednesday, though he had only enough material to get through one hour. I quit on a Tuesday evening.

I never complained of these things at home. There everyone talked, but no one listened. Lamar must have come to the same conclusion;  over the years, his speeches transitioned from sermons to self-therapy. One night, as we sat in the kitchen, he spoke of the respect he had for my mother’s father, who had threatened to kill him, should he ever hurt my mother. In his next breath, he told me that he no longer found enjoyment in fucking his wife. We sat side by side at that table and were both alone.

Near the end of my high school days, any sense of cohesion between family members was worn down to nothing more than passing fancy, something that was more often the byproduct of a mutual dislike than any actual connection. The ties that held my brothers and me together were a bit stronger, though not by much. I spent as little time as I could around the house, but I kept a Nokia brick in my pocket on the rare chance that Jeremy or David would need something. I refused to look for a job.

The call came through on an evening indistinguishable from most others. A group of us were down by the train tracks in the middle of town, and I was puffing cigarettes to impress a girl that had smoked since middle school. The house phone number flashed on the screen. I answered, and my mother’s voice broke the static. I braced myself for her usual reprimands, but there was no frustration in her voice. She ignored my adversarial tone. Within a few sentences both hatred and reverence reinforced our bond. I rushed home.

The last time I saw my stepfather was through the rear window of a police cruiser. He never turned to face me. The officer asked if I had anything to say to him, but I could spare no words. By the time they left, the blood on my mother’s face was dry. The four of us that remained stood together on the lawn. We were unsure of what was to happen next. The neighbors took their noses from their blinds. I was the man of the house, and I had never felt more like a child.

Grouse Wing Barrel: A Letter

By Randy Osborne

“From one wing, you can determine whether it’s a male or female. If it’s a female, you can even determine whether she had a successful brood or not. And you can tell if it’s a juvenile bird.” – Kari Huebner, Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist

“Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.” – Kathleen Stewart

*

I’m going to marry that boy, you promised the grownups. Or so I was told later, back home. Maybe impulse drove you to blurt how your future looked in a passing moment. Or maybe at age ten, an excitable girl, you actually saw the future, whole and busy and colorful. Did you know, when we met that summer, that my immediate family had just exploded? Dad gone adrift post-divorce. Mom free of the drunk at last. Edgy, love-haunted, Salem chain-smoking.

kidrandyHere’s me in 1961, the sad first-grader from Illinois, arrived with his grandparents for a week with Virginia mountain kin. He shuffles from the gas station, peels the wrap off a Popsicle. Cuts across the outfield, past the tomboy who fist-smacks her mitt, waiting for the play.

He feels her gaze on the backs of his legs.

Suddenly she’s in front of him. “Gimme a bite.” Her half-smile almost a sneer. Sandy hair in her face, eyes glittery behind like a hidden animal. The game stops. “I wanna bite.”

Her teeth sink into the icy pillar, an almost inaudible crunch. Tilts her head, lips tight, savoring. Swoons. Whips back the hair and those eyes flash open. “Now you got to give me a kiss!”

He runs.

At bedtime, she shows up again. Sallie – the big people know her name – still wants a kiss. The big people are too amused. They fail to defend him, and he scrambles under the blankets. She dives in. Amid their tussle, air under fabric quickly turns humid. He smells grass, dirt, the rhubarby tang of girl. Sallie gets what she came for. You do.

You take me hiking. We flick Japanese beetles into a pond and the trout rise, a swirly slapping froth, then gone. The trout knows nothing of the beetle’s life on the bush, nor does the beetle know of the bush’s root system (only the delicious leaves), nor does the bush know of the antlered buck’s terror as it clambers past and gunshots ring. Nor do we, as by then we’re on a distant hillside watching the Holsteins graze. You point out the salt block, sculpted by cows’ lapping into an exotic shape, a smooth glide that I will one day startle myself to recall when studying the body of a nude woman.

All the matter in the mattering world matters to us. The salt block wants our tongues. Wordlessly we’re on hands and knees, faces against the gooey-slick. A distracting texture that flavor must find its way through. Bits of straw, black specks in the slurped ivory. We rotate strokes, ecstatic. You watch me. I watch you. We can’t stop.

*

Years pass. Sallie’s in high school, my grandmother Madeline tells me, her finger tracing lines on the handwritten letter. I picture you, but fading. More years. Sallie’s married now, Mad says. I register the news as a sort of wonder shaded with betrayal, mild. Then: Sallie has a little girl of her own. I graduate high school.

Jump to 1988. Mad’s in the hospital, her colon ruptured. Coma, the doctors say. Slim chance. My uncle Theodore is delayed – in Virginia, oddly enough, where he’s visiting our people – but hits town the second afternoon, when my grandmother has miraculously awakened. He tugs me into the bright hall.

Don’t tell Mad, he says. Sallie’s dead.

In the following weeks I use genealogy websites to trace how we’re related. Did you know, or was it as much a blur for you as for me, that my grandmother Mad’s brother was the husband of your father’s sister? More than enough distance on the family tree for us, anyway. Marry that boy.

I sift newspaper clippings and righteously fume at their descriptions of you. “Thin blonde,” say the neighbors. “Wild, volatile, and irrational.” Someone who claims to know you well says you “never grew up.”

A journalist myself, I understand the grabby, often slapdash nature of reporting. Fragmentary, steps removed from a reality that’s ungraspable to start with. I understand – and fume.

The Virginia clan informs me that you “got interested with the ‘dope crowd’” early on. Estranged from your husband, you have a “pretty brunette” daughter, 16. She “appeared normal,” the newspaper says. This daughter is charged with your murder. Small-caliber handgun. “Multiple” bullets to the head.

*

I ransack the internet for details about you. Find the obituary for your mother, Eleanor, who died “unexpectedly” at age 82 in February 2011. She loved her seven children. Also gardening, animals, and Elton, her husband for 65 years. I find the obituary for Elton, 86, who followed his wife in June of the same year. Proof, an example.

One happening leads to another, I guess. Any effect depends on its cause. But doesn’t cause depend just as much on effect? Neither takes priority, both dissolve in an embrace, and this is how I stop time. Just not for long.

Radiant, youthful Eleanor, your mother in a photo that you may have seen, cradles a puppy. In one that you likely didn’t see, your dad Elton – bald, speckled, perhaps arthritic –  digs into a Christmas gift bag. Of you I can find no photos.

At this moment I feel helpless that I’m not able to visualize you, and ridiculous admitting how long you’ve been with me, and embarrassed by trying to say in what way you’ve been present. You peered over my shoulder at my slippery firstborn, red and squealing. You nodded, silent, when I acknowledged my first gray hair, plucked.

I’m better at perceiving absence (vastly much more of it, maybe why) than what’s in front of me. Is it preferable to die a certain way? Would I rather perish in a head-on crash, mangled meat? Or scream into oblivion tumor-sunk, entubed and beeping on the crackly institutional slab, their goddamned TV in my face?

From Eleanor’s obituary: “We recall occasions while growing up when our mother would take in friends who had nowhere to go.” You rode with me west when I wandered, another marriage kaput. One morning near the park where I had pulled over to sleep, I watched the hunter empty his bag of birds onto a table. His dog circled madly. The hunter unsheathed his knife and inserted the blade’s tip into the shoulder wedge of each bird, one by one, wrenching loose the feathery flaps. They came away bloodless every time. He tossed the wings into the “collection barrel,” which I hadn’t noticed until then.

I touch my companion’s thigh in the winter dark. She stirs and whispers. Your hand. Hot. (I’ve experienced the heat by placing my palm on my own bare shoulder, and I want the experience to be hers also. A peculiar fever I’ve had since a boy. Doesn’t register on a thermometer. I used to fantasize throwing myself naked into a snowdrift, the hiss and great clouds of steam … ) Now I flatten my hand against the wall above the bed. I touch her again. Mmmm. Cool. Still groggy, let her sleep.

I feel her; she feels me; we feel each other mutually and ourselves individual, apart. I feel the wall, but the wall can’t feel me. Then she feels me and feels, by way of me – who is changed – the wall. So many things are like this.

Your daughter works out a plea bargain, serves time. I hear from the Virginia people that she’s living in Roanoke, not far from the trout pond and our Holsteins. One more image: Coy leaves hide clusters of Concord grapes, thick with promise. The fog on their surfaces picks up our fingerprints, proof of contact. Next the evidence is partway inside our bodies. Between our teeth the grapes pop sweet and sudden and voluptuous. We chew them down to their bitter, irreducible skins.