House Rules

Issue 3, True Stories.

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.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA

Issue 3, True Stories.

By Tricia Stearns

Yesterday I found myself in the doctor’s office hooked up to an EKG machine, and even the machine was having a fucking meltdown and didn’t work. There were two nurses and a doctor all hovering over me trying to get the little plastic connections that were taped to key parts of my body to read from the machine on to a paper, so the doctor could medically evaluate whether I was having a heart attack. Technology. I always thought technology would eventually kill me, and maybe God was going to show His sense of humor — His little way of getting back at me for all the expletives I yell when I can’t get a printer to work, can’t figure out how to complete an Excel spreadsheet or never set my margins right the first time. Fuck technology.

Two nurses and one doctor later, the EKG machine was ushered out of the room. Together we decided that if I continued to feel like I ate every meal at the Golden Corral, then it would be wise of me to go to the Emergency Room.

At 5:45 in the evening, the Christmas do-das on the light poles of the nearby shopping center were casting colored shadows on the paper liner of the exam table. We were all tired. While they disconnected the wires of the machine, I envisioned each nurse hustling home, each yelling at her kids to let the dog out to pee, while she heated soup or zapped those Godawful Hot Pockets for her children’s dinner. My triage crew gave me a sample of an antacid, and I went home and threw the dinner party that had been scheduled since September.

But honestly, I didn’t feel well—and I hadn’t felt right for over two weeks. But I just keep moving. I drink a cup of coffee, walk three miles despite my feet yelling at me. I work though I hate it, iron shirts, cook dinner, read a bit, write essays but never revise them, give my husband and our sex life the obligatory ten minutes. Each day I move because I must.

I thought about going to the emergency room just to cancel the dinner party; after all, I never got around to making a dessert. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

I did manage to roast dinner in the oven between the 18 phone calls an hour, ten new emails per hour, combined with a holiday luncheon where we gave a scholarship away honoring my deceased daughter.

Thus, dessert never got made, and I was tempted to cancel the dinner party.

Suzie, one of the guests, ALWAYS serves homemade pie or three kinds of cookies, along with a scoop of made-from-scratch sorbet when she entertains. Oh, and she is ready when people arrive. I, on the other hand, have to have my husband serve the first cocktail while I go back and change – and toss back my first glass of wine just to settle into social mode.

I didn’t go to the emergency room afraid I would just catch a flu bug from some other stressed-out suburbanite, combined with the fact my husband would just reschedule with the perfect people. I was almost home free. I had a roast in the oven – the ultimate answer to First World problems.

And dinner was fine. I heard laughter and compliments and merry cheer come out of my guests’ mouths. Our dinner conversation was thoughtful – with intelligent discourse on the state of our republic. My husband was profoundly pithy with dropping just the right humor when the discussion would get too heated, but the entire time I had an internal conversation with myself.

I am just so tired. I am tired of mean people. I am tired of being a people-pleaser. I am tired of dishes, cooking, work—yes, your carpet needs replacing before we put this dump on the market. What? You bought a new car a week before we close on your first house?

I went to bed reading and planning the following day, reviewing my Fitbit where I walked 19,000 steps. And I had a heart rate in the danger zone. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Something happened that night. I had a dream. And my deceased daughter, who died at 20, was 8 years old. And she snuggled on my lap. We were on the patio of the house we lived in at the time. She had her hair in pigtails, and she was holding my face and making me look at her as she explained her dilemma. But this time she was holding my face and looking into my eyes, and saying, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. It’s beautiful here, and I am so very happy and joyful.”

And I woke up to another day of First World problems. I wish I could tell you that my attitude improved. It didn’t. But I followed the mantra, “Fake it til you make it.”

I took baby steps. I went to the office Christmas party for the first time in four years. I got people dancing who normally stick to the walls like Velcro. I took cookies to that asshole in the mailroom. I bought Christmas pajamas for my other girls, even though they are adults. I baked cookies—for my dog and HIS friends.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Each day I feel less overwhelmed, personally and globally. I don’t feel I can solve all ills. But this one thing has occurred to me that has been a game changer.

The Declaration of Independence says we have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. I get what our forefathers were trying to say, and I would have been on that boat with them, cold and miserable. Upon landing, we would work the fields to grow food for my family and village.

I also believe in a Cosmic God, one that is in control of the entire universe and the soul of each human being – and my dog. In John 14-17, Jesus says God created us to be happy and joyful in this world and the next.

The Declaration of Independence was ratified by a group of tired expatriates who wanted to pursue their own democratic republic, to self assert their future and the future of their grandkids.

I get the whole Peace on Earth thing, that plays on the Muzak while I wait in line at Target. But, seriously, having peace in your heart in 2016? FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA. No way.

But, I was given a clue in my dream. I live in a world full of pain and trouble and human suffering. I do not need to add to it. I must surrender my anxiety and trust the universe.

The pursuit of happiness is just that – the chase. The get-up and hustle, the early bird gets the worm, only the strong survive, the coach yelling at you in the locker room at half- time to get your shit together and WIN.

Often in that pursuit of happiness we create Idols. We can even become our own Idol – seeking the obvious: the fast car, the material possessions, the best for our children or a politician that will save our society from suffering. And, in that very pursuit, we lose ourselves.

Through the years of working, doing and being a human, I once lost myself.

And when I lost my child in a sudden accident, the News became personal.

Tragedy is only a moment away for all of us. In any given moment, our lives can change. In my suffering, that deep internal grief that only a parent can truly understand, I have made room. I have made room to surrender to a quiet joy that cannot be bought. It does not come with my employee review or 74 likes to a selfie with my dog.

This joy is the byproduct of suffering. The suffering is the foundation of a club. I belong with other members of it, and we stand in solidarity, surrendering to pain —surrendering and living with joy despite of it.

I am too tired to pursue. Instead, I receive. I receive hope.