Birthday eleven

birthday_eleven.jpg


(This fairly long story is a work-in-progress for a collection of texts and images to be published soon by Editions du Réal.)

 

The man in the photograph is dressed in a uniform, a military uniform, looking wooly and leathery (both the uniform and the man). He holds a cigar in one hand. His left leg is crossed over his right. His calves are sheathed in shiny leather puttees. He must be in the cavalry. Don’t they wear puttees for riding horses? Anyway, a war must be on then, but which war? How about the Spanish-American. Remember the Maine! So yes, he must be on his way to Havana, but you can see that he is not ready for a tropical climate, health-wise. He’s right stout and pudgy-faced, he is, and he has thick sausagey fingers from eating too many sausages with his grits, eggs, and biscuits every morning, food consumed in mulish disdain for his wife Rosie’s warnings about his diet, not to mention his smoking. She has laid down rules about smoking in the house, but he smokes where he damn well pleases, at the dining table, in the parlor, in the kitchen. He prefers cigars and fires up only the nastiest coronas. The lingering stench pervades his life. In fact, it may be that his cigar addiction reveals more about his psyche than he would like the world to know. Just regard the arrogant way he is posing for his portrait. The stogie could be read as an extra finger or, given where his hand lies, a thick brown Johnson. His haircut, meanwhile, reveals nothing. It must be the military style of the day, bushy on top with sides and back cut to stubble. His face, however, is a potent mask begging to be deciphered. He is arrogant, nearly petulant, impatient even, as if the portrait session had not his idea. “Christ,” he’s thinking. “Haven’t I already sat for the formal portrait? Why is this casual pose necessary? It’s superfluous—if not downright frivolous. Well, this pose was something Mother insisted on, but did I have to give in to her whim? Such a scatterbrain she can be. Good reason doesn’t work at all with her, just stupid feelings.” You can hear his teeth grind behind those tight lips. He reconciles the matter by telling himself that the photograph is an obligation to his mother, one that he must fulfill before he joins his unit at the front. Soldiers get killed and, well, doesn’t his mother deserve a memento to weep over? So here he is, engaged in performing his manly duty, yet all the while resenting the charade, the go-along game. Does he ever smile? It is hard to imagine. His solemn dark eyes under shrubby brows indicate a cunning mind. The man is a shark posing behind a solemn mask of benevolent yet blunt authority.

Is the newly minted soldier happy? His mother always swears she wants him to be happy. At least that is what she says at tender moments like bedtime and at his birthday breakfast. “Hugh?” she begins, her voice thick with lavish concern and raspy with Lucky Strikes smoked continuously. “Couldn’t you be happy, just a little, for me?” Except for those rare, almost ritual occasions, his mother is, from Hugh’s perspective, uncaring. If she truly gives a damn about his happiness, why is she forever on him to do one useless thing after another, such as rake leaves, sweep the side porch, be still. To spite her, he never smiles. Never. No matter how amused he is at her antics. His woebegone expression drives his mother crazy. And when she orders him to practice his piano, he bangs “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” his least favorite piece of music ever, with such gusto that she yells at him to go ride his bike, or do something else—anything!—but for Christ’s sake, just do it outdoors. To further irritate him, she drags him to church with her every Sunday and insists he wear a white shirt with wide, flat collars to Sunday School, despite the fact that she knows  how much he hates the shirt, despises the starchy smell, the untouchable surface, the stupid buttons, white bone, for Christ’s sake. But it isn’t just the shirt he objects to. He considers most of what goes on at church to be insincere malarky, except at the moment when his Sunday school teacher, a certain Wade W., a porcine shoe salesman who belches continuously and smells of half-digested sausage, bows his head in the tiny classroom with six kids Hugh’s age and prays to the Lord for his boys to work hard and to be as pure as Jesus. Mr. W. obviously, if painfully, means it, sweat-pated as he is, drops of his soul dripping onto the floor, dots of salty face rain. Call it perspiration, or as Pretty Lady likes to say: dew. He drips dew.

“Hugh? Happy eleventh birthday, my baby, my Hugh. Tell me, what would make you happy?”

Hugh stopped writing and looked up from his notebook. He faced his mother across the breakfast table with a glare he thought was full of bale. She set in front of him a plate of his favorite breakfast: buttermilk pancakes topped with a large pat of butter melting and oozing down the ruffled layers just like a photograph in a magazine ad. She unscrewed the cap of the log cabin-shaped can of maple syrup, a product he despised, preferring molasses in the shiny round can with the simple label BLACKSTRAP in bold black sans-serif letters on white paper, an image evoking bitter plantation cruelty slathered with the sweetness of blood-thick sorghum syrup. His neck tingled at the thought.

“Come on, Hugh. What would make you happy? Tell me.” His mother flicked cigarette ashes into the kitchen sink.

Hugh closed his notebook. Patiently—and unsmilingly—he repeated the answer he always gave when she asked about his level of contentment. “Me? Happy, Mother? What would it take? For one thing, I’d love to know where Dad is, that would be a very good start.” He slapped his pencil down on his notebook and added angrily: “And by the way, before you answer, beware of offering your usual offhand excuses for my father’s absence. I want the truth, at long last. Make me happy. Tell me the truth.”

“Hush, Huey baby,” his mother said, using the hated nickname Huey with a tone of forced nonchalance that she knew hurt his feelings. “Now remember, this is your birthday, so let’s not get into all that. It’s your special day. You don’t get many in life, let me tell you, so make the most . . . ”

But Hugh had quit listening to his mother the instant she uttered Huey. He was not a giant diapered duckling and hated being referred to one. Baby Huey, for Christ’s sake. Those insipid cartoons and that comic book? The Adventures of Baby Huey in Duckland, my ass. Imagine it as he tried, he couldn’t see himself in the picture. Then, just as thoughts of Baby Huey waddled out of his mind, his mother was saying: “ . . . besides, you know very well what your father is up to, he’s traveling, he is working for us out there.” She waved her cigarette in a wide histrionic circle to encompass the universe. “Christ, Hugh. You’re being selfish. He sacrifices for us, traveling week after week to keep us clothed and fed.”

“So tell me, how’s all this diligence and sacrifice working out for us?”

“Show some respect, Hugh. I know it’s your birthday, but you can at least be civil. And remember, times may be tight for this family right now, but—”

“But what? I mean, seriously Mother. Who buys those crummy watches he peddles, anyway?”

“They are not crummy. And besides, your father is no peddler. He is a Jewelry Representative, and he represents more than watches. He has a whole line of jewelry, some with real diamond chips, too.”

“Yeah, right. I’ve seen Dad’s catalog. Designed in Paris . . . Tennessee! Manufactured in Geneva . . . New Jersey!Dad showed me his sample case the last time he was here. Must have been for Granna Stokes’s funeral last summer. Anyway, he took me into his office out back over the garage and locked the door before opening up both sample cases. He patiently described each item in his inventory. He bragged that he’d even been singled out to be invited, all expenses paid, to Brooklyn, New York, to the company headquarters and _atelier des bijoux_ or some such.”

“Oh now, Hughy. Stop it! I know you made that up.”

“But it’s true, Mother. And worst of all, Dad’s jewelry stunk. Nothing glittered, for X’s sake. Isn’t jewelry supposed to glitter? The stones just lay there looking . . . bored. Bored jewels, Mother? Who does he think wants to buy jewels with no imagination, maybe even borderline depressive?”

“Hugh.”

“And you’re telling me that our livelihood, yours and mine and that kid brother or sister you’ve got baking in your oven there, that our right to go on living in this ratty house on this dead-end street on the edge of this despised city, our food, our clothes, our shot at happiness—our very existence—depends on Dad selling to savvy jewelry shop owners in Bayou La Battre, Alabama, gems that contemplate suicide?”

His mother did not answer and turned away and extinguished her cigarette in a puddle of dishwater in the sink. She reached into her apron pocket for her eternal Luckies and busied herself getting one out and lighted. He watched her every move and measured in silence the number of seconds the operation took. He surreptitiously wrote the tally on a chart he kept in the back of his notebook. She wasn’t even close to her record of three point five seconds. In fact, at ten seconds it was one of her longest light-ups on record. Why was she stalling?

She blew a lusty cloud of incinerated luck into the room and said: “This is your special day, so go ahead now, birthday boy, and enjoy your breakfast.”

Hugh frowned at his eleventh birthday offering then said: “Mother. No sausages?”

“You told me yesterday that you hate sausages now.”

“That was yesterday. Besides, I lied.”

For a long moment Hugh’s mother stared at him and took another drag. Finally she said: “I just want you to be happy, for Christ’s Sake. Okay Hugh? You understand me? Happy? What will it take?”

“What will it take to make me happy, Mother? Well, before I answer, make sure you really want to know. You think you can you handle the awful truth?”

“Suffering Jesus, Huey!”

“All right, then, Mother, you insisted, so here goes.”

First I want to become a doctor specializing in

tropical diseases like malaria and yellow jack,

but just as I graduate med school I decide join the Army, 

and be a cavalry officer in the Spanish-American War,

on the American side, of course, but I’m intrigued

by the idea of being a Spanish soldier and hanging out

with some cool insurrectionist Cuban dudes wearing

sweat-stained cotton pajamas, red bandannas,

and nifty straw hats, carrying wicked, polished carbines,

and getting drunk in high-ceilinged cantinas

smoking serious cigars. But I don’t speak Spanish,

so it’s the U.S. Army Cavalry for me.

Definitely not with the Rough Riders, though,

because everybody knows all the fame in that enterprise

will go to a certain Teddy R, a rich-kid glory-hound

from New York, the Gotham I’ll never see, much

as I would like to, but that’s another story.

Lucky for me, being a doctor when I sign up means

that I automatically get the rank of captain

and get to eat a little better than the troops.

Blackstrap molasses, even. But I accept

 that the rigors of campaigning will be shared by all.

My unit sails from Galveston and, aside from seasickness,

the voyage to Cuba goes well. Four horses die, unfortunately,

grief-stricken at leaving their native soil, I am told,

unlike me and the men of Company D. We are eager for the fight.

In due course, I will survive the noisome camps in Santiago,

the rancid sausages, the dysentery, the malaria, the yellow fever.

At the end of the war, in spite of having endured all this

without murdering one of my mess mates in anguish,

I will be awarded no medals, no bonus,

no offer to continue in the service.

Once mustered out and figuring that perhaps

the soldiering life wasn’t for me anyhow,

I will practice medicine in some little town in the Delta,

a place like Indianola, perhaps.

No, no Mother. I’ve never seen Indianola.

And no, I’ve never even passed through the Delta,

but you should know that.

Well, I guess I choose Indianola because of the name.

I just love it. The sound of it, yes, but more than that,

I am addicted to vivid images flowing from the word Indianola:

I see the great Choctaw chief Pushmataha.

I don’t see him as he might have appeared in the flesh,

grave of mien and movie-star handsome,

but rather as an automaton in the penny arcade,

you know, at the State Fair in October.

Come see! Come Hear!

The mechanical Indianola!

Come one, come all!

Yes, the tin homunculus shows its age,

that’s obvious. Its once-bright colors are

now dulled with an amber patina of age.

Yet even in this decrepit condition,

you cannot escape Pushmataha’s insistent gaze.

His time-burnished eyes capture you with their sagacity . . .

and despair. What does it all mean? F-word if I know,

Mother.

All I can do is just stand awe-struck and listen to

the scratchy recording that draws me in:

Try the Mechanical Indianola!

Just insert a penny in the slot.

Be edified by the stirring words

of Pushmataha’s Last Oration!

I stick in my penny and so the Indianola speaks:

I am about to die, but you will return to our country.

As you go along the paths, you will see the flowers,

and hear the birds sing; but Pushmataha will see and hear them no more.

When you reach home they will ask you, “Where is Pushmataha?”

And you will say to them, “He is no more.” 

They will hear your words as they hear

the fall of the great oak in the stillness

of the midnight woods.

Et voilà! Indianola, it is for me.

With a happy heart, then

I move into a modest house

set myself up with a general practice:

deliver babies, set broken bones,

prescribe laudanum to the lonely ladies,

order the rowdy gents to give up their

cheap cigars and rotgut whiskey

while I myself, with shameless hypocrisy,

go right on smoking and drinking

to the point of becoming a falling

down drunk every few months.

My binges take me to Memphis and Louisville

Nashville and Chattanooga—even Key West!

But this does not make me happy.

To set the sinking ship of my life safely afloat again

I marry and have kids.

Rosalee, my bride (a Memphis O’Shea) is very pretty

but cagy and smart, too: a match for me in every way.

Yes, we have children, twin girls, Rachel and Doris,

and my lovely family makes me happy.

That’s what you want, isn’t it, Mother? My happiness?

Yes, and so as the years go by, the Siren

call of alcohol-fueled binges overcomes me less and less

I evolve into Indianola’s beloved Doc Masters.

Women call their babies Hugh after me

and the town fathers of Indianola name a street Masters Avenue,

even stage a public ceremony with speeches and a band

playing songs from Spanish War days in honor of my service.

All right, Mother, I get it. You hate that name. Masters.

But it is Granny Masters’s name, right?

Your mother’s. Mmm-hmm. Your father’s too.

Well, okay, I thought you might feel that way.

We don’t talk about your father, wherever he may be.

But I’m keeping the name, anyway, so just let me finish.

It’s my happiness, right? So I get to pick the name I use.

After all, it was you who started all this.

You asked me what would make me happy,

so don’t quibble with my answer.

Yes, you can keep smoking if you want to.

No, it would not make me happy if you put it out.

Anyway, in due course our Doc Masters

gets elected Coroner of Sharkey County,

a really neat job where he gets to perform autopsies,

preside over inquests, solve crimes. Very cool.

Things go on getting better like this for a while,

when suddenly, just at the height of his parabola of success,

Doc Masters crashes.

For reasons unknown to this day,

he abandons his practice in his beloved Indianola.

Rumors fly, of course.

There is talk of violated racial taboos, trysts

on the bayou alongside Masters Avenue.

Whisperings about an autopsy faked

in order to hide a murder. A bottle of liquid heroin

traceable to Doc Masters is found clutched

in the hand of the corpse of eighteen-year-old

Juliet McHarry, the virginal daughter of Hop McHarry

Indianola’s leading planter and richest citizen.

To avoid any scandal that might bring the honor

of the McHarry name into disrepute,

the Coroner—c’est moi!—rules Juliet’s pitiful death

accidental poisoning, thus saving the McHarry’s

the shame of everyone knowing

that Hop’s daughter was a drug addict

hooked on a beloved doctor’s supply of . . . well,

no matter about the truth, it is not Doc’s finest hour.

In any case, for whatever the reason,

kindly Doc Masters decamps from his beloved Indianola

with his family in tow. Quite a caravan they make,

two cars—a shiny, late model Buick and a dusty ’49 Plymouth—

each pulling a trailer piled with furniture and cardboard boxes

draped with a smelly new waterproof tarp, in case of rain

(I did learn a few useful things in the war!).

Doc Masters is not insensitive to his family’s

anger over the turn of events, so in an effort

to soothe their wounded feelings, he buys everyone

a new pair of shoes at this shoe store in Bentonia

where the caravan stops for lunch.

The Thom McAnn owner owes Doc a favor

(something unspeakably horrific from their days in Santiago)

and will cut him a deal, four pairs for the price of two.

An hour later, the Masters family, well-shod, well-fed,

—if not entirely content—presses on to its new home

in upland farm country, a locale as far from

the grasp of the Sharkey County Sheriff as possible.

The farmhouse Doc Masters has bought is a sprawling woodframe

shaded by burly oak trees. The new place has a pecan orchard,

corn fields, and lots of cows. Cows are cool, big and stupid.

The twins Rachel and Doris love it.

But not Rosalee so much.

Then, just when the family gets settled and is thinking positively again,

kindly Doc Masters collapses with exhaustion.

He finds that he wants to completely erase his old doctoring life

and take up new pursuits, such as learning white oak basket-weaving

from the Choctaw medicine man who

lives in the forests a half-hour’s drive away,

over near Noxapater, at the base of the

ancestral mound of Nanih Waiya.

And yes, Mother, Doc will brood on the past,

what went wrong in Indianola and he will become

so guilt-ridden and ashamed that he quits using

the name Doc Masters any more.

Satisfied? No more with your father’s despised name.

Nameless, then, ex-Masters’s search begins for answers

to the pain in his soul. He swears to shun old time religion.

No answers there for nameless men like the former Doc Masters.

He reads Ouspensky and Gurdijeff. He goes to study meetings

of the Theosophist Society. Alas, nothing clicks on the spiritual

level, so he tries a materialistic path. He subscribes to The Daily Worker,

which arrives in a brown, unmarked envelope.

But he soon grows weary of the party line.

One day, having exhausted all my options

for spiritual and material self-renewal,

without telling my wife . . . Rosalee, Mother, her name is Rosalee

without giving Rosie warning,

I take Rachel and Doris, my daughters, on a train ride

to visit my sister Olivia and her family in Mobile.

My sister is divorced with two quarrelsome boys and runs a dry cleaners.

She and my two nephews live in a cottage up the road toward Eight Mile.

Before we have been at Olivia’s for more than a few days,

I collapse, wracked by fits of despair and melancholy

exacerbated by late-night cigars and Cuban rum—

a habit acquired in my cavalry days—

with my drunkard ex-brother-in-law Buster,

Olivia’s choice for an ex-mate could not have been

more unfortunate for yours truly. Alarmed

by my possible return to binging, I grow so despondent

that I send Rachel and Doris back home to the farm to live

with Rosie and help her manage the pecan orchard

and grow corn to get by.

Rosie needs the girls more than a nameless man does

and gladly welcomes them back. But she wants

nothing more to do with the dude

formerly known as Doc Masters and so

hires a private detective to catch me at something

she can use against me in court when she sues for divorce

and full ownership of the farm.

In the meantime, I’ve worn out my welcome at my sister’s.

Olivia literally throws me out. She is strong—pure Irish maid stock,

don’t you know—dand admonishes me, her despondent brother

to get a job. So I find work sorting used pencils at Acme Trading, Inc.

I rent a room over a grocery store.

The room is barely large enough for a single bed

(the mattress stain . . . could it be blood?).

The scuffed chiffonier has a cracked mirror.

When he isn’t laboring at Acme, the lonely Mr. Nobody

sits for hours at a time and stares at his reflection in the

chiffoniers’s cracked mirror. He swings his head this way

and that, the better to observe how the kaleidoscopic

shards of glass distort his features, eyes, nose, lips.

Does he recognize this mercurial fellow?

Does he recognize anything of himself,

the once-beloved Doc Masters in the swirling

cascade of selves that hypnotizes him?

Which distorted face is truly his own?

What he realizes finally is that who he is

changes faster than he can get a grip on all by himself.

He needs help.

But before he can act on this epiphany,

the pencil sorting work for Acme peters out and

he is laid off. To get by, he sweeps floors,

runs errands, wears a sandwich board on

Admiral Semmes Avenue dressed as Mr. Peanut.

It’s the Depression by now, of course, and times are hard.

Like many no-name men standing in line for handouts at the Sally Mission,

he dreams of buying a trawler in Bayou La Batre and learning

shrimp fishing from a Cajun whose name, Aucoin, means cornered.

Of course our nameless soul, he am lost, he am bereft.

Him weep in the night, him

He long for family, darling Rosie and the darling girls,

to be back in their loving arms again.

He awaketh one morning paralyzed,

incapable of speaking or moving.

In fact, all he can manage is to recall in vivid detail is

the day he sat for that photograph dressed in

his cavalry uniform wondering what the hell was going on,

how his life—how any life—might turn out,

but forcing his face—my face—into a world-weary scowl.

When that image fades, I will conjure the scene on Masters Avenue,

Indianola, the freshly erected street sign, the adoring gents and ladies

dancing to Charley Paton, and marvel at this enduring tribute to a man

nobody remembers anymore.

That would make me happy, Mother. Satisfied?

“That’s it?” Hugh’s mother asks. “That’s all you need to be happy?” She is standing at the sink washing breakfast dishes and humming to herself, has been for a while. A lighted cigarette rests precariously on a butt-crammed glass ashtray on the windowsill. A damp breeze through the window screen scatters the cigarette’s stream of smoke into infinity. Hearing no answer from the birthday boy, she turns and says: “Huey?” 

“Mother. You know I hate this fake maple.” Hugh screws the cap back on the tin log cabin and pushes it to the edge of the table. “Now tell me: Where’d you hide the blackstrap?”


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