The unenlightened neighbor

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Olvie pours herself another cup of Folgers while I start the pancake mix. “I think that was the door, Olvie.”

“Come in, Wise-Guy,” Olvie yells.

“Well, that was pleasant,” Tanner says, wearing a clean pair of “underground” railroad pants.

I pour circles of batter into the hot skillet. “What?”

“Man came charging toward me from across the street. Said I didn’t have any business being here. Guess he doesn’t like Negros.”

“Asshole,” Olvie mumbles.“That’s because he doesn’t like himself, that stupid son of a bitch.”

Pondering her words, I wonder if Olvie is really smarter than the rest of us. Mom and Dad told me people are often scared of things they don’t understand. And instead of trying to figure out what they’re afraid of, they resist anything new, anything different. Mr. Roberts must not have any Negro friends. If he did, he wouldn’t be afraid of a teenage boy.

“What did you tell him?” I ask.

“Nothing. I ignored him.”

“Why’d you do a thing like that?” Olvie says. “Should have told him off.”

“And why would I do that?” he says. “I don’t want trouble.”

Olvie huffs. “You sound like your uncle. ‘Don’t wants to cause any trouble, ma’am. Yes’m, anything you want, ma’am. Ain’t no good stirring the pot, you see.’ Ugh.”

“You think Uncle Elias should stand up for himself? Like I told Chicken Coop, he’s old school. He’s still afraid of the white man’s world.”

“Oh, and you’re not?” Olvie says.

“Oh, yes’m, I is alright,” he says in dialect. “Jes’ try nots to show it.”

Olvie stops in mid Chuckle. “Elias still thinks garlic hanging over a bed will cure a cold. If you tell him otherwise, he won’t listen. Speaking of, how’s that finger, Wise Guy. Need me to chop it off? You hung those tools up real nice in the utility room. I can find my saw easy now.”

Tanner squeezes his hand. “No thanks. Think I’ll hold on to it for a while.”

This makes Olvie laugh. She has a good laugh, one I’d like to hear more often.

Excerpt from my work in progress set in 1963.

 

NOTE: The photo is of Emmett Till who reminds me of my character, Tanner Ford. This novel will be in honor and memory of Emmett.

Climbing out of Guilt

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Cono Dennis, my father, at age 18

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the

I still think it’s a crying shame that I had to spend so much time thinking it was my fault. I guess that’s what we do sometimes, take the blame for things that just aren’t our fault, especially when we don’t know any better. But back then I didn’t have a Colonel Posey to tell me any different.

Last week on the base, that responsibility was especially tough, and I don’t feel much like I lived up to it. I was right in the middle of running a training exercise when a young private missed the rope leading down from the Climbing wall. He fell fifteen feet to the ground, landing wrong. We all ran over and circled him like a bunch of buzzards.

“Sergeant Dennis,” he says, “My neck. I don’t feel so good.”

“Aw, you’ll be all right son,” I told him. “They’re coming to take ye to the hospital. You’ll be all right.”

But he wasn’t. Private Henderson died later that day.

So far, almost every night since then, I imagine him lying there on that hard ground, his eyes staring into mine with confusion and fear. I’d lied to him.

Colonel Posey told me I had done nothing wrong, that it wasn’t my fault Private Henderson had died. He told me I was the best sergeant he’d had so far, told me how he appreciated me. I looked at him for a second or two until all the guilt flew off my shoulder like specks of dirt in a windstorm.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Measuring up

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Cono, my father, age 14

You don’t really know much when you’re born, but that’s where it starts, alright, whether you like it or not. When you’re just a little suckling pig on your mamma’s teat, all you really want to know is that the teat will keep filling up so you can start suckling all over again. Once you reckon the food’s always gonna be there, you move on to wondering whether you’re gonna be kept safe from harm and warm when it’s cold. As you get a little older, you find out that maybe there isn’t always going to be enough to eat after all, and you won’t always be warm either. This is especially true if you grew up during the Great Depression in Texas, in the western part, where any stranger is sized up from boot to hat, if, that is, they’re lucky enough to own both.

Texans trust themselves first and foremost, and then maybe one or two of their kinfolk, as long as they’ve found that trust to be right as rain, if the sun can set on their words. I grew up trying to figure out who was in which category, who I could trust and who to never turn my back on. There was a lot of line crossing. I learned what I know from watching those who crossed over and the others who stayed on their own side.

I did both.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, my father’s story

Measure

Dad ain’t pleased and I’m payin’ for it

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photo credit

Dad’s been drinking. He sways his way over to me with a look on his sorry-ass face that says, “Ya best answer this next question the way I wanna here it. Where’s Zexie?” He didn’t ask where Pooch was. He could see him lying in the shade by the house.

“What?” I say, trying to keep my axe swinging in the right direction.

“I said where’s Zexie?” he yells.

Unlike Dad, time is standing still and sober like at the picture show, when the film has snapped and nobody knows what to do with themselves. All I know is, I’d been doing what I was told. I was chopping and sharpening, chopping and sharpening all day, the sharpening part being my idea. I have enough wood stacked up to make it through a blizzard.

I say back to him, “I don’t know, haven’t seen her. Been chopping wood all day.”

“Get the gun,” he says. “We’ll follow the trap line. See if she got caught up.” I run inside and get the single shot .22 off the chester drawers and run to catch up with Dad.

Sure enough, Zexie is lying in the first trap we come to, poor little thing. She’s been gnawing on her own leg to get out of that trap. I know I didn’t have anything to do with it. Dad set that goddamn trap, not me. I was only doing what I was told.

Dad pulls the trap open and picks her up, cradling her in one arm like a baby. Then he walks over and slaps the living hell out of me with the other. I stumble back but this time, I don’t fall. I make myself stand up straight.

Dad sure does like dogs.

He hands me the .22 to carry back and starts walking towards the house. Just as I’m thinking, “Don’t turn around you sorry son of a bitch ’cause I’m gonna shoot you in the back of the head,” he turns back around, grabs the .22 right out of my hand, and take the bullets out.

“Here,” he says, and hands the pistol back to me.

He doesn’t trust me, and I don’t trust him. That’s about the sum of it.

I know exactly how it feels to be caught in a trap, and I’ll be damned if I gotta gnaw off my foot to get out of this one. I also know there’s a way to have supper without feeling poisoned. I just have to figure out where that is and which direction I need to go to get there. I’d follow those railroad tracks anywhere about now.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper

Author note: This is a true story and I need to tell my readers that Zexie recovered.

Pleased

Staying with a less than ordinary fruitcake

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“Come out to the family room. Gladys wants a word,”Olvie yells from the front room.

Now I’m creeped out that a mannequin wants to speak to me. What will I say? Oh for Christ’s sake!

I take my time opening the bedroom door and peek out before exiting. Olvie’s hovering over the plastic body so if Gladys is saying something, I can’t tell. Yep, I’m going nutso.

“Good. There you are.” Olvie says turns toward me and stands erect. “What do you think?”

“Why, oh, did you take her shopping?” I say, trying not to think about myself in a straight jacket.

“No, silly-billy. Gladys doesn’t like to go out. I had it mail-ordered from Sears and Roebuck.

Gladys is no longer flapping in the 1920’s. Her fringed dress and headband are gone. She’s caught up with our decade and, although too big for the thin mannequin, I can’t help being impressed. The moo-moo is light green with white daisies attached to darker green vines that run diagonally down the dress. Orange stitching accents in between.

“Well, what do you think?” Olvie, or maybe Gladys says.

“It’s perfect. She looks like a new person.”

Olvie smiles. “She wanted a change so she got one.”

“Everyone wants a change, don’t they, Olvie?”

“Not everyone,” she says, and stares out the front window.

I’m so excited about the change in Gladys, I remind myself I need a real friend. Someone who’s not crazy or made of plastic.

I make myself a bowl of Trix cereal and try to remember I’m not a kid like the floppy-eared rabbit tell us on TV.

 

Ordinary

A minimal meal

Cono Dennis - An Unlikely Hero in the Making
Cono Dennis, his sister Delma & Pooch – late 1930s

For a week, the whole house feels pain of one kind or another. Delma’s in one bed crying, Dad’s moaning and cussing in his. But the only sickness Mother and I feel is a mean rumbling in our bellies from lack of food. Since Dad’s been bedridden, we don’t have any gambling money to spend on groceries.

Mother walks over to the kitchen cabinets and looks inside. No salt, no pepper, not even a lousy piece of stale bread is sitting in there. No sir, there isn’t a dang thing to eat. She goes to the last cabinet. There, all by itself, sits a medium-sized onion. She takes it out, holds it in both her hands and stares at it like she’s thinking a roast was fixing to pop out of it. At least that’s what I’m thinking, when my mouth gets all watery.

She peels that onion real slow, like it’s a prized Hereford being slaughtered for steak. She slices it up just as slowly as she’d peeled it. She puts it in a skillet and adds a little water, looks at it and adds more water.

The onion soup doesn’t taste like onion or even warm water. It tastes like cold hunger seasoned with poverty and sprinkled with fear. And the stuff that settled on the bottom of the cup? That’s anger. I drink it anyway. I feel like a Devil’s Claw, stacked up and falling back down on my own self. It’s like being slapped without even having a hand laid on me. Maybe it’s because the slap I feel is on the inside instead of the outside, a slap like a burning face just as uninvited.

Excerpt from No Hill for a Stepper, a story about my father.

Minimal

Staying with a Fruitcake

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photo credit

Sitting on the leopard print living room couch next to Gladys, I know I’m living in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Not because Gladys sits in the exact same spot wearing the same flapper dress from when I got here three days ago. And not because Olvie hasn’t bothered to move her. I’m in The Twilight Zone because I have to spend the next few weeks living with a fruitcake.

I peek out the front window. Olvie’s at it again. Just a few minutes before, like she’s done every morning, she told me to “stay put” until she comes back inside with the newspaper. And like every morning, she won’t pick it up until she sees Elias Ford heading her way on his walk to work.

Olvie’s shuffling down her sidewalk towards the curb wearing her moo-moo and striped yellow and black socks. She bends down to pick up the newspaper. He must be getting close. Yep. I see him now. Mr. Ford has stepped into the danger zone, too close to The Property of Olvie P. Crazy.

Like always, Mr. Ford tips his shabby hat and attempts to hurry past.

Like always, Olvie steps in front of him with the familiar finger point and the poke, poke, poke to his chest.

I don’t get why she doesn’t like him. What’s the Controversy anyway?

Yesterday morning, Crazy Olvie had forgotten to close the front windows. I heard her ask Mr. Ford if she could spit on his shoes. “It won’t take long,” she’d said, almost politely.

I wonder what she’s quacking to him about this time. That his shoes need polishing? That his rusty lunch pail should be thrown off a cliff? That the only reason he still lives around the corner is because my daddy spent “too much time” repairing his house so the city wouldn’t tear it down? Mr. Ford lives in what some ignorant people call, The Black Pocket—a small thicketed area that folks like Dad fought to keep intact. Including the ten or so residents.

Mr. Ford shakes his head. I bet right now he’s wishing he’d moved after all. His expression reminds me of Tom Robinson in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird and the thought makes me sad.

I get in Gladys’ face. “Let me tell you. I’m not happy about being here either. So there.” She doesn’t respond, of course.

I must be catching her loony bug. Perhaps I won’t last a few weeks. Maybe not even day four. I ponder where to go and what to pack before I run away.

Excerpt from a work in progress.