Kenny was my mother's baby brother and he was fourteen by the time I was born. He'd grown up in my grandparents' house, on a small farm on the outskirts of Memphis. He'd been a Boy Scout, and as a kid would order practical joke kits out of the back of Boy's Life. Grandaddy would put on clean boxer shorts and his butt would start to itch, or my grandmother would find a bloody rubber finger in her denture glass. But he'd made top grades, played little league baseball, attended church regularly according to the principles and wishes of my grandparents, and gone on to become an Eagle Scout.
After he graduated from high school my grandparents refused to send him off to Knoxville to UT with his friends. Too expensive. They said he could live at home, get a part-time job, and go to Memphis State. So Kenny stayed at home, I suppose with the intention of starting college later, and got a job working at a Texaco on highway 64. He began buying and selling fast cars and making new friends. Whenever my family went "home" in the summer, or for Christmas, Kenny would drive my brother and me around in his souped-up Plymouth Valiant, up highway 64, past the Texaco station which my admiring mind believed he owned. I remember in those days he had a lot of girlfriends, pretty girls who worked as secretaries and hairdressers, and that sometimes he would drive us to their work and show us off. And usually he'd ask the girlfriends which side of my family -- his and my mother's, the Dardens, or my father's -- they thought we favored (in north Memphis everyone knew everyone else). As far as I can remember the girlfriends always said we favored the Dardens. And that I especially did. My grandmother kept Kenny's black-and-white graduation picture in a gold oval-shaped frame on her vanity table (I hardly ever entered her room with its light blue carpet, its flower-print bedspread and matching curtains, usually drawn, and its waxy smell of Glade lilac spray). My mother had the same picture hanging in our Texas hallway, in a similar gold oval-shaped frame with glass that bubbled out. In it Kenny's hair was still cut in the short, butch fashion of his conservative public high school. He looked out at a slant, his small dark eyes under his bangs, sun-bleached from working around the farm in the afternoon, not quite meeting yours. I recognized the beetly, Magic-Markered eyebrows that almost connected, which I'd inherited. His narrow lips were relaxed shut, his smooth jaw was set at a jut that gave him an air of resolve about whatever he was thinking when the shutter clicked. With his slightly crooked bowtie he appeared handsome but also a little cagey maybe -- as if he felt trapped by the bubble of glass and the straitjacket tux.
Around the time I turned six Kenny came to live with us for a few months, I didn't know why at the time. He'd tried to steal a set of tires for his car from the owner of the Texaco (who'd pressed charges) and ended up spending the night in jail. He'd pled guilty at his court date. To pay the lawyer and keep from going to prison he'd had to sell the Plymouth Valiant and promise never to steal again. We had a small three-bedroom house where Kenny got his own room. I had been held back from entering the first grade for a year, for the crime of not having turned six until a month after the September cut-off date. My mother had already taught me to read and enrolled me in a book club for my year at home after kindergarten. Most mornings while Kenny babysat I read and mastered the Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss books I got through the mail. I'd wake to the sound of my mother closing the front door, heading off to her secretarial duties at the Holiday Inn out on the interstate (taking my brother with her to drop off at elementary school). I squirmed in bed under the covers, knowing he was in there, probably still in the big double bed. I waited until I knew the coast was clear. I could smell the smoke of his Winstons. I thought of the day Kenny had arrived in Sweetwater on a Trailways bus -- even then I'd felt something was up.
Then down the hall barefoot I'd go, my skinny legs poking out of my white briefs. I was blond and brown-eyed like Kenny in the photo. In my most idealized memories of him Kenny is still young, too -- he must be nineteen. I don't know yet that he's small, that like most of the men on my mother's side of the family he comes just up to other men's noses.
I would hear, "Hey bug," before getting to his door. When I turned the corner and peeked in he lay there taking a puff, an ashtray on the covers next to him. "Come here and give me some sugar," he would say, and said again on this particular morning. "Why are you smiling? Why are you smiling, little doodlebug? You better come give me some sugar . . ."
He put the cigarette out and set the ashtray on the nightstand. He turned his head slowly and winked at me and I hopped into bed next to him and he put his arm around me and kissed my eye. I was a squirmer and a giggler. I wrapped my hands around the arm that held me and kissed my way up to Kenny's hand and began biting. I bit the meat of it and then I went to work on the individual fingers. That morning I bit too hard or too long. Whenever my brother and I'd get into something dangerous around my grandfather's property, or so dirty he knew Granny would hate having to clean our clothes afterward, he would make a kind of nasal warning sound, "Hengh!" It was so honking and countryish it sounded as if it had been dug, like the fishing worms he churned up from the soil next to his compost heap, out of the clay of his rural west Tennessee past. And that was the sound Kenny made as I bit and gnawed on him one morning: "Hengh!"
I stopped, but in gradually smaller softer waves, and closed my eyes and pretended to fall asleep. When I opened my eyes he'd pulled back his chin to get a look at my face, and he winked at me. "Doodlebug." He winked. I winked, he winked again. "Hey, what's that?" he said.
"What's what," I said, and when I looked down he tapped my chin and said, "Gotcha."
"Whatcha eatin' under there?"
"Underwear!" he said, crossing his eyes. "That's weird, nephew."
He was looking out across the covers and I followed his stiff gaze down to the lumpiness of his genitals. "Hey, what the hell is that?"
"Are you sure?"
I had a frozen smile, uncontrollable and drunken. "Sure I'm sure!"
"You wanna see it?"
"Go ahead and look."
He lifted the corner of the covers. I'd seen his naked body before, as he whipped a bath towel away from his body and hung it on the bathroom rack and walked bare from the sink to the bedroom, me following, and he took his time putting on his underwear and clothes. No one in my family was self-conscious about being nude -- the words naked and nude were never whispered but said out of matter of factness or fun. My mother would talk to him in the bathroom as he shaved and dried off, one act following the other without transition but the sudden removal of a towel, a flash of skin, then more skin, as he tucked and rubbed at his last hidden damp parts and they carried on a conversation. She cared for him as a baby and as the oldest she'd often been the one to change his diaper or bathe him. She told me never to be ashamed of my body, and if when I looked at her naked body I giggled or gawked she would smile tartly and say, "You see anything unusual?" She would streak about her bedroom, powdering and dressing at her leisure.
"Is it a snake?" he said, raising one famous eyebrow.
He knew I was terrified of snakes. Ever since my father had gone out with the Jaycees to round up rattlesnakes, to display live in the coliseum in a pit like a large above-ground swimming pool for charity, I'd started having nightmares about them. They gathered them from under rocks at the edge of the desert, into big thick canvas bags. My father and some of the other Jaycees had brought a bag of them home once before the big day. In the cool of the carport and the bag's dark interior they'd hardly moved. But then with some of the other Jaycees' help he opened the sack and using a stick with a handle like a golf club's and a chrome hook at the end would pull one out. The snake curled itself around the hook. He'd hold it up and stare into its eyes and grab it under its head and put pressure behind its jaws until they opened, exposing the inside of its pearly wet mouth and milky fangs. That's how they got the venom for making snakebite serum. Worse was at the expo, when they waded into the pit -- a pond seething with a hundred snakes -- in their chest-high snakeboots and used the stick to show them off one by one to the crowd. Kids would stand tiptoe on the bleachers as some of the parents watched and the rest lined up at booths to get fried rattlesnake and Pepsi. I stomped up the bleachers daring myself to look and stomped back down in giddy terror. When my father went into the pit I ran to the coliseum lobby begging my mother to get him out. I hated the taste of the fried snake, I'd hated it when he'd brought them home and handled them in our carport, when he wouldn't listen to me -- one man got nicked and had to go to the hospital. And when it got to be too much for me I'd run into the house, wild-eyed scared.
"Is it a snake, doodlebug?"
I crawled under the covers, serene, and wrapped my arms around his waist and cuddled.
"Is it a snake?" He said my name.
"Hengh!" He pointed at me severely. "Don't call me dummy. I'm still your uncle."
"Then let me touch it."
He raised the covers. I reached giddily. He timed it for effect and shoved his hip at me as I was about to make contact, growling. I yanked my hand away and he snickered. "Thought you said it's not a snake," he said. He let the covers drop back over us and drew them up to his chest and as I freed myself from under them he smacked his lips, then pursed them prudishly.
"But you said!" I said.
I looked at his face, his gestures warming again. "Said I could touch it."
"Well then touch it, if it's not a snake," he said, miming helplessness, one hand up.
"Don't make that noise." I looked down -- it had already grown some under the covers.
"Don't scare it now, it's shy," he said, winking.
He raised the covers higher over us, like a pup tent, so I could get a good look at it. It was bulkier and lay to one side against his thigh. Mine was a node of flesh like a plastic draining valve on a picnic cooler. When I urinated it plumped out just enough for me to get a grip on it with my thumb and finger.
"Kiss it," he said. "Is it a snake?"
"I already said it's not."
"Is it a snake?"
"Go ahead then, if it's not a snake. Give it some sugar."
When I kissed the damp end of it he whipped the covers up. "Whoops!" he said, and the covers came fluttering down on my head and back. He kept whipping them in the air, and saying, "Whoops!" Once my grandparents had taken us all to a lake in Mississippi in their camper, and we'd gone swimming in a lake. Kenny had held me while my mother, in up to her chin, watched as he bounced me up and down in the warm brown water -- each time taking me under with a look of expectancy, teaching me to hold my breath with bugged eyes and bulging cheeks, bringing me up and showing me how to exhale, when my mouth wasn't full of lakewater, with a surprised look. "Huh?" he'd say. "Huh!" And he'd laugh when I laughed, my mother aping along with us, cackling.
"See what else," he said. He threw the covers completely off. I laid my head on his chest and watched. It moved. The head lolled lazily and lifted, then rested back to the side against his thigh. I reached, but he grabbed my hand and pressed it against his leg: "Hengh!" He worked his eyebrows, indicating for me to look back down, but I was looking into his eyes. "Look," he said. "You're not looking." I looked. The head began to rise, the rest of it to straighten, and I reached.
He took my hand, caressing it in the bigness of his own hand. He lifted and craned it over to his penis and laid it there. "Now, is it a snake?"
I was surprised by its velvety feel, its muscly stiffness under the sheath of soft skin, and the way it was too big for me to get my hand all the way around. I grinned. "No."
"All right," he said.
I laid my palm and the pads of my fingers against it, curving my hand to see how much of it my grip could hold if I really tried.
"Or is it a lollipop," he said, "is it a sucker?"
"Maybe," I said.
"Why don't you go ahead and see?"
I liked the slow build-up, the feeling of expecting something to happen. The call from the filling station outside town -- my father phoning my mother to say they were bringing some of the snakes over. The drive to the coliseum. I'd approached the building hesitantly, breathing heavily as if some snakes had already escaped and were lurking under cars and pickups in the parking lot.
He put his hand on my head, stroking my hair, and said, "You want to see?"
"Okay," he said looking over at the wall. He licked his lips, looking at me again seriously. "Part of the game," he said. He raised his eyebrows and said, "Part of it's not telling, right? That part's not a game, okay?"
"Okay. Just let me see if it is. Gosh."
He took my face in his hand and waggled his eyebrows. "Okay?" he whispered.
He took his hand from my head and patted my back as I moved back down.
"Is it a lollipop?" he said. "Is it a sucker?"
"Well you better find out," he said. "You better give it some sugar and find out."
He must have gotten tired of Sweetwater pretty quickly. Kenny and my mother had been trying to get away from Baptists all their lives, especially their mother, and they had landed in dry Nolan County, Texas, where to get a drink you had to belong to a club. After a few months, he'd gone back home to Memphis and was working in the Firestone factory. An electrician there since the Fifties, my grandfather would work the nightshift and come home in the morning, rest, eat his breakfast, and go out on the farm to put in a full day of growing soybeans, tobacco and vegetables to sell at market. For years Grandaddy had had a helper, Gus -- a dark Italian who was older than Grandaddy and had sour breath, chewed tobacco, and lived alone in a little shotgun house behind the barn. Gus was in a retirement home now and when Kenny got married he moved his pregnant wife into the little shotgun house and began fixing it up. He worked the nightshift and slept until noon. After lunch he'd sometimes go out to the fields to help Grandaddy until supper, before he had to be back at Firestone. But the work in the fields wasn't as hard as it used to be. Since Gus had gone off to the old folks home my grandfather had started leasing most of his twenty acres to neighbors, keeping one field for himself for growing vegetables and melons. Every once in a while my brother and I had to pick pole beans, field peas, and okra for dinner or for Grandaddy to take into town. The work was hot and sweaty and we swatted horseflies as we bent over bushes and vines. We would have both rather have been inside in the AC watching Andy Griffith and eating Little Debbies. He'd turn to me, shirtless, his pointy tits jiggling, and ask why we'd gotten stuck with all the nigger work while Kenny was out driving around in his new metallic orange Plymouth Duster -- looking up old friends or running in to the grocery for Granny to get more Little Debbies. While he was gone, Granny would complain to us he should be at home more with his wife Patty and their new baby. My aunt had given birth to my cousin a week before my brother and I got to Memphis to spend the summer with relatives. The Duster had a wide jacked-up rear and fat tires and gleaming chrome and if it was parked in front of the little house out back I knew my aunt was sitting inside in the rocking chair she pulled up in the main room to the open doorway of the tiny bedroom, catching the window-unit air conditioner while my uncle slept, rocking and nursing my cousin on the edge of the half-darkness of the little room where the windows had been foiled over with insulation and the cotton print curtains she'd made herself were drawn. Granny had warned us not to disturb them while Patty was still recovering from childbirth. Granny was fat and acted jolly, but swerved when it pleased her to meanness, screwing her eyes onto you and bending over you to point arthritically, and making her voice even more country and acid: "You hear me?"
One day playing alone near the tobacco barn I got tired of imagining the colony of settlers I governed in the woods across the pond, warning them against copperheads and water moccasins and ordering them to stay up in their treehouses. I hid my G.I. Joe -- who was sometimes me and sometimes one of my charges -- in a hydrangea bush and went over to the little shotgun house with the Duster parked in front, and rapped lightly on the aluminum-framed screen door. The wooden inside door opened with a whoosh.
Patty was in a long flowing caftan, with her long soft-looking auburn hair brushed straight down matching it. She came to the door and whispered, trying to be sweet but looking worried.
"You look so pretty," I said.
She put her finger up to her lips and gathered the flows of her caftan and came out on the porch in the glare and humid heat, carefully and slowly opening the screen door for a minimum of screech. Once out, she winced and shaded her eyes and said I should come back later, Kenny and the baby were asleep.
"Oh can I see the baby sleeping?"
We had almost no relationship. Once before she'd married Kenny she'd taken my brother and me to the public swimming pool, where I'd gotten so sunburned she had to put me in vinegar and icewater in the bathtub of her duplex. She sat on the toilet and leaned over talking to distract me from the tightening pain and ladling the icy pickle juice over my shoulders and down my back. Seeing her look and hearing her tone of guilt and hurt I could smell again the vinegar steam coming off my skin. It took a minute or two to get through the screen door quietly -- even the brushing of our clothes against the aluminum frame made a sound. Once inside I could see to the other end of the main room to the open, darkened door of the little room. The baby lay next to Kenny in bed, and both slept, and as I crept in the old floorboards of the house -- the house felt as if it were made of two-by-fours, tarpaper, and printed paneling, and it was covered outside with a siding material like roof shingles -- creaked under the shag carpeting. Before I reached the bedroom door, she took my hand and stopped me. The skin on her hand was soft and her nails were freshly painted pale pink. Her fingertips glided up the inside of my arm, as if lightly massaging signals into it, and the wings of her caftan's silky sleeves tickled at my back. She had, suddenly, a serious expression on her tired-looking face. Her forehead was creased, she indicated with a coral nail, Shh -- and out of a sense of outrage and injustice for her nervous-making female overcaution, my frozen foolish smile reflex broke. "What?" I mouthed. "What?" She shook her head, closing her eyes -- her expression turning suddenly peaceful. Her unpainted lips broadened out into a reassuring, affectionate smile. She mimed wiping the slate between us. She slid the rocking chair clean out of the way, though it wasn't blocking anything, across the shag carpet into an empty corner.
The little room hummed from the air conditioner in the window and light leaked in around the unit and through the cotton print curtains that flapped in front of the vents. The bed took up more than half of the room. Kenny slept on his side facing the open door, one bare muscular arm pinning the edge of the covers to his hairy chest. He had his other arm clamping the pillow under his head, exposing his armpit. His mouth gaped and he snored across Amber's head. I wanted to draw out my time there for as long as possible and I turned to Patty, covering my mouth, miming trying not to laugh. She frowned, a frown that became a tired smile, then uncrossed her arms and leaned forward. She bent to pull the sheet and the flower-print bedspread back from Amber, who looked swaddled in covers up to her neck. She tisked her tongue, hissing Kenny's name. Kenny opened one eye and brought his fist to his mouth and yawned into it. Not wanting to disturb the sleeping baby next to him, he drew his arm out from under the pillow and stretched groggily. He muttered my name, overcountrifying it, then closed his eyes, clamped the pillow to his head again and squirmed under the covers flexing his back muscles. He must have felt me staring, my frozen foolish smile fixed on him. He opened one eye, winked, then turned his head toward the wall.
Amber's tiny dark-fuzzy head looked dented and beaten up from her birth still. Her face was red and her skin shined from a coating of Desitin ointment that gave off in the house a greasy medicine smell. Her fingers, nose and ears were chapped, flaking like sugar on a glazed doughnut. She slept with her mouth gaping, too, and I remembered hearing Granny say all of us were mouth breathers. I looked back at Kenny, at the way his muscular arm was crooked out around his head and his neck with his head turned stretched thickly away from it. I felt Patty looking at me and I moved my eyes off him -- back to the sleeping baby. Her little lips guppied, slowly she milled her tiny closed pink fists in the air.
Quietly I whimpered, "Aw!" and Patty folded her arms with an exhausted nod. She had a pretty smile, broad, her lips unpainted, but managed it less often now.
"Go on," Kenny said, and said my name. He muttered it low. I pretended I hadn't heard, or had understood it to mean I could touch the baby before I left. I heard Patty's caftan shifting.
I looked back down at Amber. I hadn't noticed yet, but taking in the rest of her small and naked, diapered body I saw something sticking out of her belly button, her umbilical cord. It was ugly and dark and glistened like one of Gus's spit-wet cigarillos, or a fresh, narrow dog turd stood on its end. I turned to Patty, crinkling my nose, turning my lips down sourly. I must have made too much noise. Kenny said, "Hengh!" and the arm pressing the covers around his chest flew up and swatted at me. "Go on."
"But what is it?" I whispered to my aunt.
"You hear me?" he said. The baby coughed awake, eyes coming open, and started to cry.
"But what is it?" I said.
My aunt pulled me from the room, her cool fingertips on me, her sleeves flapping quickly and coolly against my arms and back. "Shh, now," she said, and I turned and my uncle had rolled over to touch and soothe the baby. He sat up in bed, looking up and flinging his hand out to shoo me through the door with a scowl, then went back to shooshing and kissing the baby with a dumb sweet surprised and then doting face. "Get!"
When I got out the front door I didn't look back, not even when my aunt Patty called out to me, but took off running back to the main house, and didn't stop until my palms hit either side of the screen door on Granny's back porch. I squatted and caught my breath. I reached up to the door handle thumbing the button. The door stuck and created a ruckus.
"Well what in the world?" my grandmother said, coming down the hall from the kitchen.
I dashed across the indoor-outdoor carpeting with the screen door banging behind me, and dove into her arms. "Granny!"
"You've been running," she said tenderly, in a high voice. "You're all a-sweat."
She backed away from me with her hand on her lip, peered at me through her glasses, and pinched her throat around her voice. "Did you go over to Kenny and Patty and the baby's when I've already told you not to?"
"No!" She must have known right away -- her thin lips crinkled and she held my stare.
The phone in the kitchen rang and she narrowed her eyes at me. "You just told me a lie."
She went to answer it then came back with a dented old aluminum pot used for carrying in whatever we picked in the garden. She put it on top of the deep freeze.
My grandfather swung through the screen door carrying my G.I. Joe. "Looky looky, here comes cookie!" he sang.
"And whar'd you get that?" said Granny.
"Well I just found it laying where the Nigger Man left it."
The Nigger Man was responsible for everything we wouldn't own up to. "I don't believe I've ever seen nor met the Nigger Man," she said. "And left it laying out to the rain."
"Now, now," my grandfather said, and handed me my Joe. I took him and turned.
"And whar're you going?" she said.
"Green Acres is on," I said.
Both hands on her hips, a dishrag hanging from one grip, she moved toward me -- fat as she was she never waddled -- and said, "But excuse me, you're not."
"No ma'am, you're not," she said. "You're going out right now with that pot and pick us our squash and okra for our suppah." She moved her head from side to side along to the syllables and when she finished the sentence she started over again repeating it.
She was extra-countrifying it. My grandfather, in his coveralls, kicked off his work boots and sat down on the step up from the porch to remove his filthy socks. "Well where's Bubba?"
"He's in there watching Green Acres," I said.
"Bubba nothing," Granny said deeply. "This-un's going out and pick us our squash and okrie."
So I went, hating her country accent and how she made it worse for effect. When the pot was half-full my brother came out to help me carry it back in. "Granny said I don't have to help you pick," he said. "So don't even ask me to. And because of you, I'm missing the end of Green Acres and the start of Beverly Hillbillies."
"It'd go faster," I said, and then, "Ouch, my hands."
"So? That's what you get. Hurry up, dumb-butt."
When the pot was full my hands were red and stinging. I insisted on carrying. He didn't protest except to say, "Whatever, little baby. Carry it on back, hurry up little baby. Is it heavy? Is it heavy, crying little baby?"
"I'm not crying."
Halfway from the garden I stopped to rest on the lawn in the shade of a sycamore. I told him to go on. He said in a bawling voice, "But I can't, little baby! Granny says I'm supposed to feel sorry for the little baby!"
When we got back to the house Granny was waiting under the carport, holding the screen door open. "I thought I told you to help carry."
"He wouldn't let me," he said, and bawled stagily and covered his face with his hands.
"And now supper's getting on that much later," she said, taking the pot.
"Oh I'm sorry, Granny!" he said. "Oh Granny, I'm just as pitiful . . ."
I ran to the bathroom to wash the tiny nettles that grew all over the plants and vegetables from my hands, calling, "Can we watch Beverly Hillbillies now?" My palms were numb.
"No ma'am, you may not."
"I'm not a ma'am, you."
"Then be like to a big boy and get your bath. Bubba can help set the table."
"Anything you say, Granny. Boo-hoo-hoo!"
I tried Mr. Bubble, regular soap and Breck shampoo on them. When I got out of the tub I reached for my grandfather's Lava soap on the sink and made things worse. I heard excitement in the house, the screen door, my grandfather singing hymns off-key, my grandmother's high tittery laugh.
When I came out cleaned up, my aunt was there with the baby. Granny was leaning over Amber babytalking in her high hypocritical voice. "Well look at you, jus' look at you!"
We were in the hallway next to the porch where the door at the step up was always open, and Grandaddy came in from the den. I heard the baying of the steamboat whistle announcing the Channel 5 News. It rose to a howl but the baby basked in the attention. Grandaddy took off his black plastic reading glasses and put them in the pocket of his clean, "good" coveralls, folded the Commercial Appeal, tucked it under his arm clutching it to his birdchest, and held up and clapped his hands to take the baby. He lifted the baby up and down in the air -- he made a face and gasped in time, saying, "Lord-a-mercy, what's she thinking? What are you thinking, little doodlebug?"
The baby laughed tentatively. Granny slid the paper out from under his arm and slipped it into my grip, closing my hand around the folded edge of it. "Take this on in and put it next to Grandaddy's chair," she said. "Hurry up, run on. We're fixing to have dinner."
I huffed and frowned and showed her my hands. She cocked her head back and inspected.
"I know what that needs."
I heard Granny ask Patty, "Well whar's Kenny?"
"He's out in the car tending to something. He just pulled up."
"Smoking them ol' cigarettes, I bet." I heard her houseslippers thumping across linoleum.
My brother squatted in front of the TV changing channels to Andy Griffith. I lifted the lid of a glass candy dish on the TV tray that stayed next to my grandfather's chair, and I was putting an orange slice in my mouth when Granny came in carrying a bottle of Jergen's lotion. "You just put that TV right back on Grandaddy's Channel 5 or I'll have me a chunk of you."
I'd turned to the window-unit AC and was chewing while vibrating my larynx and singing through the candied orange slice into the cold blowing vent. "What in the world are you doing?"
"Hi'm. Halking hoo. Huh. Hairrrrr conditioner."
"Get out from there, now. It's time for supper I said."
"Where's Uncle Kenny?"
"You never mind. Put this on." She handed me the lotion. "And Bubba, y'all come on!"
We were moving into the hall to go to the kitchen when Kenny banged through the screen door carrying Kmart sacks. He removed his dark-green aviator glasses and hooked them into the collar of his t-shirt. It was still light out, as sunny as noon. Granny helped me smooth the lotion onto my hands. Grandaddy carried the baby to the kitchen. Patty followed smiling, at no one. Kenny put the sack on the deep freeze and caught my eye, winking at me.
"What in tarnation have you got?" said Granny.
"Little surprise," said Kenny.
Her thin lips formed a crinkly O. "A surprise? F'who?"
Granny ran each of my hands between hers in final smoothing motions and told me to get to the kitchen, so I did. I heard them talking and slowed my steps and turned my head.
"And got them what?" she said. She turned hotly toward me. "I'll whip you."
My brother was the first at the table, and when I went to sit next to him he said, "Not by me you don't, smelling like that."
I smiled stupidly, got back up and moved around to the other side as Granny and Kenny came in. She pinched her voice in her throat and wagging her finger said, "I told you not to." She laid her hand on my shoulder as she passed. My grandfather lifted his head looking over the tops of his glasses from the head of the table. "And told him not to what?" he said.
She moved to the stove. "Chicken's butt."
"Good night," he said, "if I might have some peace, for two seconds in this house."
He'd taken a fresh cucumber cold-pickled with raw onion and white pepper from the dish in the middle of the table, eating it before the blessing. He took another and chewed volubly with his cheeks full, his ears wiggling. He washed it down with iced tea.
"And hadn't even had the blessing," Granny said, going on what she heard.
Patty was holding the baby at the other end and said, "Granny, can I help?"
"No you may not. Just you sit tight with that little doodlebug. Everything's ready."
She came back with a plate of fried country ham. She set it on the corner of the table next to my grandfather and he took his fork and served himself and passed it on. "I told him he didn't have any business spending his money, that's what." She limped back with the squash and onion in a bowl and the fried okra in another, and got them going in opposite directions. "Time or two I remember he used to mind me," she said, tittering to herself.
Kenny had taken a seat beside me and had his elbows on the table, and he scratched at his unshaved face and under his chin. He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue at me, taking the bowl of squash and onions. "I know what you told me, Mother."
"Mmm, I'm going to have me some okra," I said.
"Well it doesn't grow on trees, I know that much," she said loudly, maneuvering her large body into place between my grandfather and me. I had to scoot my chair toward Kenny, and she said, "Make room for Granny, she needs a wide space. I believe I'll hear the blessing now."
We bowed our heads. My grandfather belched and excused himself and said, "Dear Lord, we thank you for the many blessings . . ."
My brother kicked me under the table and grinned at me when I looked up. When he was done Grandaddy began to sing to himself, stopping only to ask about the cornbread.
"Ain't none," Granny laughed, "with all I had to do. You can have some of that sandwich bread."
"Why sandwich bread'll do just fine."
My brother picked up the plate and passed it on to him. Finally, before peace descended, Granny whooped and said, "I've had me a day!" She looked around at the rest of us tittering and we laughed even though it wasn't funny.
When we were done we went into the living room where we had Christmas every year. It wasn't used much otherwise, and had Granny's old-fashioned flowery furniture. Granny opened the front door to catch the setting sun and Kenny came in with the separate Kmart sacks. Amber went to Granny with her bottle of formula and Patty went to the kitchen to wash the dishes.
"They's strawberries on the counter for after a while!" Granny yelled to the kitchen. She looked at me and nodded. "Fresh frozen strawberries, and ice cream, and a cake if you want."
Kenny went out on the front porch for a cigarette, which didn't go unnoticed by Granny, while my brother and I sat on the floor Indian-style waiting for him.
"Come on then," said Granny when he came back. "Stop smoking that nasty ol' backy."
"But Lord was it good." He squatted down before us.
We tore into our sacks. He'd given us matching model-car kits of Plymouth Dusters, like his. Granny gasped theatrically, craning her neck to see. She whooped and said in her high voice, "'Why thank you, thank you, Uncle Kenny!' Well. What is it?"
I held up the Revell box, flashed her a snaphot-ready grin, and dug into the bottom of the sack finding a tube of Tester's glue. "We got glue, too!"
My brother smiled but it melted when he looked over at mine. "What'd you -- ? Oh."
My grandfather came in from the yard in his corduroy slippers and sang, "Looky, looky! Look at what-all . . ." He put on his reading glasses
"'Thank you, thank you!'" said Granny in her high voice.
"Thank you, Uncle Kenny," I said.
"Yeah," said my brother.
"Give him some sugar," she said, "and a hug and some love on his neck."
We kissed and hugged him. Patty came out to see, drying her hands on a dishrag. Granny had her eyes on me. "Well let me see," she said. I walked on my knees toward her and the baby.
"Here," said Patty, and closed in to take Amber from Granny.
"Why do we have to get the same make?" my brother muttered.
"Well for heaven's sake," my grandfather said.
"Well because they're like Kenny's," said Granny, inspecting the box through the bottom moons of her bifocals. "Plymouth. Duster," she read aloud.
My brother reached into the bottom of the sack for his Tester's glue, ignoring us all.
Kenny said, "And when you're done putting it together I'll drive you both in to Kmart to pick out the color paint you want."
"And you're not getting the same color I get," my brother said.
"Why surely not," said Grandaddy.
"You want another kind?" Kenny said to him.
I was sitting on the floor in front of Granny resting my head in her lap. "Love on Granny a while," she said.
The room got quiet a moment as my brother pouted making his decision.
"I wanted an Impala like Granny's," I said, looking up at her, smiling.
Her face collapsed. "Come here!" she said, pulling me up and smothering me in kisses.
The next afternoon, home from Kmart, Granny laid old newspapers over the deep freezer on the back porch and told us to work there.
"You stay on your end and don't come down over to my end," my brother said.
"I will, I won't," I said. "At least we don't have to pick."
"Be quiet," he said, studying the instructions. The night before he'd torn into his box and sorted through the plastic parts molded into their white plastic frames.
"Now, take it one part at a time," Kenny explained. "A goes to A, B goes to B, glue each piece one at a time and let it set."
"I think Kenny's my favorite uncle," I said. On the ride home I'd torn the cellophane off my box, to peek inside at the parts that would become the Chevrolet Impala we were riding in. I was going to paint it the same light metallic blue as Granny's. "Who's yours?" I said.
My family moved from Texas to Florida. By the following summer when my brother and I returned to Memphis, Kenny and Patty had separated and were getting a divorce.
He was living in the little house and had a new car. He'd gone back to Chevrolet and was driving a Chevelle SS, sportier and lower than the Duster -- bright white with a pair of fat sapphire stripes running down the center of the trunk, roof and hood. He was still putting in nightshifts at Firestone but spending his spare time with his best friend, Brad. He'd grown his auburn hair long and had sideburns, and in my mind Kenny was still eighteen and looked like a rock star. He came dragging in too early in the morning for us to see him having breakfast, but we had lunch with him every day and hung on whatever he said, waiting for a ride, hoping for a present.
"Y'all feel like working?" he said. "I'll give you five dollars to wash my car."
He parked the SS on the lawn under a sycamore. We sponged it down with Joy, hosed it, then dried and Turtle-Waxed it with Granny's old rags. We did the sidewalls and the chrome and Windexed the glass and wiped down the black vinyl interior with Armor-All and made sure every inch inside and out was dry with more old towels. He and Brad stood off to the side in their cut-offs and sneakers, their eyes hidden by their sunglasses. They pointed and told us we'd missed a spot -- and whenever we went around to check it they broke up laughing. "Works every time!"
When we were done Kenny asked if we wanted to go for a ride. "Can we?" I said.
"May we," said Brad, sipping from his Coke can.
"Do me a favor," Kenny said, "and put all those things on the porch and go ask Granny if it would be all right if y'all go for a ride with me. Ask nice, now. Be sweet. Say pretty please!"
"I sure wouldn't want to be in their sneakers," Brad said. Kenny crossed his eyes, shook his head so his eyes scrambled, then he knocked the side of it with the heel of his hand -- as if he'd been clobbered with a frying pan. He said, "Son, you ain't heard nor seen the worst of it."
"Don't say ain't!" I called, and that broke them up.
"I beg your pardon," said Brad, acting haughty and hurt.
"Let him be, now."
On the way inside my brother said, "Don't mess this up."
"Well, they're making fun of us."
"Poor ol' thing. But Granny likes you better, so you do the asking."
She met us on the porch and made us use the stepladder to put the things away. She took the rags and dropped them in the washing machine with Kenny's and Grandaddy's work clothes.
"Y'all get your money from Kenny?"
"Not yet. Hey, Granny?"
"You fixing to go for a ride?"
"I thought so."
"So can we?" my brother said.
"He's got that Brad with him -- like to tears me up, uppity smart-alecky thing. I'd prefer he not go at all. And them running around, with Kenny's a daddy and's got responsibilities Brad never cared to take on himself -- and never will, likely."
My brother rolled his eyes at me. "We better go, Kenny'll get mad and change his mind."
"You don't let them take you anywhere you know you don't belong, you hear?"
"Tell Kenny to carry you back in an hour."
She stood in the open screen door watching us. Kenny had moved the Chevelle from the yard out into the gravel driveway and we ran to the car and Brad got out and waved at Granny.
"Did she wave?" Kenny said as I climbed in. "Bubba, you're up front with me."
Brad got in back with me and said, "She sure did. Cruella waved."
"Ow!" said Kenny, checking the rearview mirror. He revved the 454 engine and it gurgled and groaned. He eased up on the gas pedal, squeezed the stick out of park and rolled the Chevelle down the gravel drive and said, "That'll blow her dress up." We laughed. I caught his eyes in the rearview. "She still looking, bug?" I turned in the backseat -- she was standing in the middle of the drive, and she wagged her finger up and down in an exaggerated arc then put her hands on her hips and finally waved us off and turned. "Yep, but not now," I said. "She was smiling!"
Kenny raced down the steep slope kicking up the big smooth reddish stones of gravel and aimed us left on Germantown Road to head for the interstate. "Yoww!"
"Yoww!" Brad echoed.
"Y'all buckle up or Granny'll have a chunk of me," Kenny said over the loud chugging of the motor. My brother and I obeyed, but not Brad. "I'm going commando!" he said -- and Kenny went, "Yow!" again. Only years later did I find out that meant not wearing any underwear.
He turned on the stereo and asked if we'd ever seen eight-tracks. "Duh," my brother said.
"All right, I'm going to play you something," Kenny said, raising his voice and raising his head to help him broadcast over the engine and radio. "Bubba, take the wheel if you don't mind."
My brother refused to look excited or impressed, and grabbed the wheel nonchalantly and set his jaw on "cool" as Kenny leaned over to dig through the glove compartment and excavated a pair of the big plastic cassettes and shoved one into the console. He took the wheel again, saying, "Good job there, Bubba."
My brother rolled down his window and put his arm on the sill, straining in the low-slung bucket seat, then turned his head and gazed without a care in the world at the soybean fields.
I was leaning into the space between the bucket seats. I leaned back again looking at Brad, who was dark and handsome in a pair of Elvis-style sunglasses, big square-cornered aviator lenses held in place by chrome ladders hooking behind the ears. He was tan and his hair was the color of a Special Dark miniature in a Hershey's variety bag. His smile was white and straight and he said to me, "Ha. Your brother's a regular Steve McQueen."
Kenny clicked through the tracks and turned up the volume. "You guys know this song?"
The piano intro of "Bennie and the Jets" started and my brother said, "Duh."
"Duh!" yelled Brad and Kenny. We were on the interstate. Kenny opened up the engine, and my back sealed flush against the warm vinyl and the road peeled out from under the car.
I started laughing.
"Oh you like that?" said Kenny. I nodded into the rearview.
"How about you?" he said to my brother. "You like that?"
My brother looked bored. Kenny checked the mirror. "You hear that?" he said to Brad. "Nothing," said Brad. "Tough crowd you got there, uncle."
Kenny pressed on the gas and Brad leaned in and recited the numbers on the speedometer.
"Ninety. Ninety-five. Bingo!"
We flew past the Memphis City Limits sign and Brad said, "Uh-oh, better turn your road rocket around!"
We got off at the next exit ramp and got stuck in traffic waiting to cross to the other side.
I followed the music as we idled at a low rumble and Kenny revved it from time to time. I said aloud, to no one, "What's he saying there?"
Kenny turned his head but I couldn't see his face. "What, here? You tell me."
He turned up the volume on Elton John. I listened to the part moving my lips and made a face and said, "It sounds like he's singing, She's got electric boobs, her ma has, too -- you know I read it in a magazine! . . ."
"Ow!" said Brad.
"Boy's got something strange on his mind," said Kenny, muttering like Elvis. "Yoww!"
There was a girl in a Firebird waiting for the same light one lane over. "Do her," Brad told Kenny. Kenny turned, pushing the aviators up his nose, and staring until she turned looking past my brother, and smiled. "They-go," said Brad, countrifying it. "Go on, get her -- she's your'n!"
The light changed and they howled like wolves as we peeled out -- and it wasn't until we'd gotten back on the interstate and off again, outside Memphis city limits, that the deputy from the sheriff's department stopped us. "Uh-oh, uh-awwh!" they howled and laughed.
"Okay, it's cool," said Brad. "No, no," he said, looking at me. "I'll handle it."
Kenny got my eyes in the mirror and raised his eyebrows and said, "Hold on, doodlebug. Bradley's got pull."
The windows in the car were tinted and I'd kept mine rolled up against the highway wind. When the officer's shadow swept over it, the sun was a melted-down gray-green version of itself that suddenly went cold and dark.
"All right I need everyone to be quiet," said Brad. "It's going to be cool," and leaned over toward Kenny's window.
The officer kept his distance from the window and said, "Howdy, y'all out hotrodding?"
"We were showing these boys what it could do," said Brad.
"I figured," he said. He nodded at Kenny, touching his hat. "Mind if I see your license?"
"No sir," said Kenny, pulling his wallet from the back pocket of his cut-offs.
"Well hey," said Brad, removing his sunglasses when the deputy glanced over and showed his eyes -- ice-blue like a husky's. "I know you from the barbecues."
"Yeah? How's that?" The deputy didn't remove his sunglasses, looking too young to be an officer of the law.
"I'm Brad Crawford, Galen Crawford's son."
"Well that's what y'all all call him," said Brad. "But if I called him that he'd haul off and knock the snot out of me. Daddy'd have a piece of my ass for breakfast."
"I reckon he would. Well I'll be dog, Bud Crawford's boy."
When we were driving away they called him a dumb-ass redneck and Kenny got me in the rearview and said he'd let me sit up front in the bucket seat with him as soon as we made a stop.
I realize I haven't given the best impression of Granny and have painted her as something of a villain in all this. At some point not much later Kenny stopped living in the little house after the umpteenth argument with my grandmother over his "ways" -- meaning, I suppose, the way he hung on to his youth, doing as a divorced man the things my grandparents hadn't let him do when he was growing up. After almost getting a ticket Kenny and Brad decided to tempt the devil and stopped at a package store for Millers and Cokes. They'd come out of the store together looking to me like Butch and Sundance smoking Winstons. Brad carried the brown paper bag. We pulled up to the little house a half-hour later. While Kenny ran in to dispose of the evidence in his trash my grandfather crossed the lawn in his "good" coveralls and corduroy slippers, said hello to Brad and shook hands with him.
"Come on in, have supper," said Grandaddy. He seemed in a bit of a hurry, as if Granny had sent him. He clapped his hands and shadow-boxed with me. "Pork chops, butter beans . . ."
"No thank you, sir. I best be running on."
"Mercy on the chickens," he said, "you can stop in, have a bite, break bread with us. Go get your uncle, Bubba, let's go on."
My mother's always portrayed her father as lost in his thoughts. Chewing big mouthfuls of my grandmother's food and following the table's conversation with his cheeks swelling and his ears flapping until, with a mouthful or not, he was ready to say something. He'd take time in the evening with the TV going in the same room to read the newspaper, study the Bible and get ready to lead the congregation during Sunday night worship service at Sunshine Baptist, after he'd made elder. He was proud of all he had and all he'd done, and grateful to God for what he'd been given, and no one who met him did not think him the best or fairest of people. Granny was his foil, and when he came in for supper that night Brad tried turning on the charm: "Evenin', Granny."
"I'm not Granny for you," she said. "My name's Miz Darden to you."
We ate in near-silence, Granny lifting her pork chop to eat it like finger food at the kind of gathering they never attended. She put out her pinkies and bit delicately, raising her eyebrows to say she found the meat agreeable and the company interesting enough.
Brad sat up straight opposite me. He complimented Granny's cooking and Kenny agreed hunched over his plate, pinching his lima beans up between layers of cornbread, licking his thumb and drying it on the paper napkin before making another attack-pass at his porkchop.
I heard him later that night reminding her, "Brad's got college, Mother."
My brother and I were in the den watching Hee-Haw. Grandaddy sat in his brown vinyl recliner -- his slippered feet flat on the floor, his big leather-bound, gold-edged King James Version Bible open in his lap. The noise had come from the hall again, but for an instant it quieted down.
"And's a no-good so-and-so to boot. That family's too good for us. They attend St. John the Divine, ever'body. Spulled rotten . . ."
"Alrighty, I won't bring him over again. That was Daddy's idea, you need to know . . ."
Her voice heated up. "You're gonna start doing right, and get back right with God."
I looked at my grandfather, who'd closed the Bible marking his place with his index finger, keeping his glasses. His lips were strangely fixed -- wince or smile? -- something between pleasant and painful. He called my name, said, "Hey. How you like them girlies? Bubba? How you like them girlies?"
I turned. The gingham halter tops and denim short-shorts had gotten skimpier on the girls and their breasts and hips curvier. "They're all right," I said.
"You don't need to be like this," Granny was saying.
"You don't need to be running around like this, carrying on like this." Her voice became a whisper. "You don't even talk to him anymore. And you a father, going through a divorce."
"I talk to him, in my way."
I started to get up and my grandfather said, "Hengh!"
"I have to pee."
"Well you can just hold it in for two-three minutes."
Some time later Firestone laid him off, but for a while there was the hope of their rehiring him. Then, shortly after my grandfather retired, the factory closed. Kenny started calling late at night and my mother would sit in the dark of the kitchen listening to him and smoking -- and in the morning would give me the shorthand. "Down," "Blue," "Not doing so hot," and "Things aren't too-too." Or I'd walk into the kitchen when she was talking to my father about it before he went to work and get the tail-end of something. "I just think she could be a little more understanding," she said. He'd be at the breakfast table eating cereal and say, holding up a hand, "Well, look at it from her point of view. She's got a child to raise and besides, Kenny is the father of her child."
My mother would be smoking, something she only did at parties and amid turmoils. She took a puff and defended herself. "I know, and I like Patty. I'm on record as liking Patty . . ."
"And what?" my father would say, upturning his bowl to get the last milk and cereal. "I have children, too, and I know what my responsibilities are. I knew when I got married."
We heard he was living on unemployment, and that when that ran out he was driving a big rig. I heard the beginnings of some of the calls, before my mother chased me out of the room. She would pick up the phone and instantly her voice got playful and flirtatious. "Well hi!" Or, "Hey, baby brother." She'd go to the fridge negotiating her route with the princess phone cord, open the door of the fridge and take out a beer. She'd smile at me crazily and mouth Kenny's name. She moved with the slack of the cord and the beer to the counter listening to him, take a foam slipcover with the logo of my father's company out of the cabinet and push the can down into it and crack open the pop top and move into the dining room saying, "Well, shit. And what'd that bitch say?" and cackle. If I lingered too long she'd say into the mouthpiece, "Just a minute," put her hand over it, and fluttering her eyelashes at me say, mock-politely, "I'd like some privacy, please, if you don't mind." I would be wearing the frozen smile. "I just wanted to know who the bitch is." "Scram." As I was walking away I'd hear her muttering something to him in the dark, pause, then cackling.
He visited us one fall. I came home from school and she met me in the kitchen smiling and said, "Guess who's on his way down now? Kenny. He's leaving this instant. He's bringing his new girlfriend Theresa. 'Scuse, me, Thuh-resa."
"I just got off the phone with your dad. Not too happy." She cracked open a beer.
Her siblings and even her parents did that all the time -- just picked up the phone and said they were coming. "Only on her side of the family," my dad would tell me, about whatever. The divorces, the missed child payments, the mishaps with sleeping pills. Frustrating for me was the way she switched sides constantly, depending on which one of us she was talking to.
She was smoking again and she puffed, sipped on her beer, and locked me in with her dark Darden gaze and said, "We're not supposed to pronounce it Teresa, it's Thuh-resa, with a T-h."
She took another sip and puff and said, "Well, poo-poopy-doo. I'm just wondering what she's like. Says he's in love." She rolled her eyes and fluttered her eyelashes, finishing by raising her eyebrows and frowning.
They came in the middle of the night in Kenny's Datsun 240Z. They called from outside Valdosta, Georgia to say they'd be on I-10 soon and would be getting in they-didn't-know-when. My mother and I sat up. She smoked and drank one more beer and kept a vague eye on the show I was watching, interrupting periodically to say, "I'm dreading this, frankly." I turned to give her my attention but she'd already been contradicting herself too much. "Your father and I both."
They called from in front of the Li'l Champ near our subdivision needing directions again. She and I went out to greet them in the driveway. Getting out of the car, they didn't censor their voices. They whooped and my mother laughed. "Miracles never cease!" said Kenny. "That's a long-ass haul, y'all!" He was, I thought, countrifying his voice more and more.
I went around to his side of the sports car and squeezed in close, smiling frozen again, and he hugged me and said, "Hey, boog. What's up? You stayed up just for us?"
My mother was on us in a second, and he took her and dipped her like a tango dancer, and when she came back up he kissed her. "Hey, sis."
They stayed up and I was sent to bed after a while. My father had already planned a day of fishing and wouldn't cancel his plans. They slept all morning in my bed -- the same bed Kenny had slept on in Texas. Bored with waiting, I found my mother in the kitchen. She was making all kinds of sauces to freeze and thaw out as needed during their stay. "Rough night," she said. And yet she was cheerful. There was a look she got only when she was near Kenny, or her sister, that said, "We've survived. Don't know for how much longer, but we've made it this far."
When they got up, Theresa took her coffee out to the driveway and played with the dog. She was wearing a jogging suit and had her pale hair in a ponytail -- and she was thin and beautiful and my mother watched her through the sheer curtains of the French doors. "Mm-hmm, pretty," she said, "real pretty." I heard my bedroom door and then the shower running. She turned to me and said, "That Kenny?" I nodded and pretended to be absorbed by the TV. She went back into the kitchen and picked up where she'd left off, opening cans and spice jars and cutting tomatoes.
"Don't bug him," she called.
I crept away and found Kenny in my parents' bathroom, just out of the shower. He was towelling himself off.
I studied him, which he didn't seem to mind. He looked at himself in the mirror which ran the length of the counter and all the way up to the bathroom ceiling. "Mama around?" he said.
"Uh-huh, in the kitchen."
"How you been?" He tied the towel around his waist, leaning in to the mirror for a closer inspection.
"Well, I hate school," I huffed. I was sitting Indian-style on my parents' bedroom carpet, in the doorway, with my feet on the bathroom tile.
"I get you," he said. He reached for my father's shaving cream and expelled a large dollop of it into his palm. "But hang in there," he said, then put the can down and smoothed the shaving cream onto his face. He turned to me, raising his eyebrows. "Stay in school."
I'd never seen an authority figure look on his face, and it was kind of ridiculous given how long his hair was still, and how trim and adolescent but for the hair on his chest his body was. "I heard you're real smart, in gifted class. I was in gifted, or something like it. Study hard, and let it take you somewhere." He started shaving with a plastic shaver. "Take that, uncle to nephew."
I went out to the driveway while he drank his coffee in the kitchen talking to my mother.
Theresa was sitting in the passenger seat of the 240Z, the glove compartment open before her, and when she saw me she smiled but the smile was supposed to say everything. It was hard not to compare her to Patty, even though her straight hair was blonder, and her skin clung closely to her cheekbones and jawline. "What have you been doing today? Isn't the weather gorgeous?"
"Yeah." I got in behind the wheel and said, "This is such a nice car. It's Kenny's, right?"
"Oh, yeah. Kenny's toy." She smiled. She was listening to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Stevie Nicks's wandering witch voice and the thumping music went together. I thought she could be kind of a Stevie Nicks -- anchored-seeming and serene. "I love," she started -- dropping her head back against the headrest -- "I love just riding down the highway, like we were doing, no care in the world. And this is playing. Man. Then like, I just light up a joint and pass it to Kenneth and we ride and ride down the highway . . ." That's when I knew it wasn't a regular smell I was smelling in the car. I recognized the rubbery smell of a new interior, but something sweet, too, and caustic at the same time.
I looked down at the open glove compartment and on the inside of the door was a pair of surgical clamps clicked shut, their scissor handles tensed and touching and holding a stub of roach at the clamp end. Not that I knew what that was then, not up-close. We'd been warned about it at school, and I'd always thought it was something only people my age, there would offer me.
"You really like him, I guess," I said, smiling.
"Kenny?" Her teeth were straight but not pure white. And when she smiled it wasn't so much sunny as partly cloudy, with sun flashing out. "Hell yeah." She bit her lower lip and some of her subtle lip gloss rubbed off on the edges of her upper teeth. I pushed my blistered lips over the wires and sharp edges of my braces and closed my mouth painfully. Looking at her I realized my physical shortcomings all over again. I looked at the cleavage of her small breasts through the zipped-open collar of her velour jacket and her narrow hips in the smooth velour sheathing of her matching powder-blue jogging pants. She wore sunglasses -- with big bubble-shaped, tortoise-shell frames -- and when she looked at me she knew I couldn't see her eyes.
She smiled, a little embarrassed, biting her lip. "Kenny's just a great, great lover. Do you know what I mean when I say that?"
"Yeah, you do?" She nodded, satisfied that she'd confessed, or that I'd acknowledged her confession -- and laid her head back on the head-rest. She smiled complicitously and said, "So you know what I mean when I say he's a great fuck," flicking her lip out, rolling her head side to side.
"That's really cool," I giggled. My scalp felt numb as if it were separating itself from my head, and I wanted to add, And you know what I mean when I say he'll end up leaving you, too?
When I went back in the house my mother was stirring a pot of chili. She led me into the living room and cocking her cigarette out and whispered, with a grin that looked like a challenge to me, "It's her daddy owns the trucking company."
When my father got home he parked his boat and started broadcasting to everyone in our CB club an invitation, in code, to our house for a party. Kenny was sitting in the pickup next to him and made up a handle, Wings Fan, on the spot, and when people started arriving and parking in the street they came around to the back drive and asked for Wings Fan. There were coolers of beer, bottles of Bacardi rum, chili, tacos and takeout barbecue. My brother brought his stereo out to the garage and set it up, and Kenny brought out from the trunk of the 240Z a wooden whiskey crate of record albums and slid "Band on the Run" from its sleeve and handed it to my brother.
"Now hold on," said one of my father's friends. "We supposed to dance to this?"
"Yeah, man," my father said, holding his Old Milwaukee out from his hip, demonstrating the Twist. Kenny set his rum and Coke on the corner of the card table where my brother had set up, and with his back to them slid the Eagles' greatest hits out of its sleeve and handed it over.
When the country strumming of "Take It Easy" began he turned, raised his chin and at the top of his lungs said, "All right folks, now how's that?"
My dad did the Rooster and strutted about on the cement floor of the garage, chin going in and out, one hand on his hip, beneath a naked light bulb.
"Do it, Crankshaft!" said the man who'd complained. "That'll work, Wings Fan!"
My mother hollered and said, "We're going to get wild and crazy tonight!"
Soon the garage was filling up and the women took turns helping serve my mother's food, and making runs inside for more ice, more paper towels, plastic flatware, styrofoam bowls, cups. They spilled out into the driveway and the light over the French doors burned, and someone who had camping equipment in the back of their truck lit a Coleman lantern and soon a cloud of moths were chasing each other in the greenish light. The more they drank the more they whooped. The later it got the more the tequila, rum and Jim Beam came out. The women pretended to fight over the next dance with their host. And in the corner next to the washer and dryer Theresa licked the meat of my mother's hand behind the thumb, dipped it into a bowl of salt, and handed her a lime.
"Bite into it," she said, but my mother seemed to have trouble understanding the order, or motor difficulties. "Bite into the lime," she said and reached for a shotglass of Cuervo Gold she'd left on top of the washing machine.
I strolled off, ignoring the kids my age. I was drawn back when Kenny boogied around to check on my mother, who'd upended the shot of tequila and was taking his hand as he led her out to the middle of the garage. He lifted their arms trying to get her to twirl without letting go. Each time, though, she stiffened her hand and got their fingers tangled. By then a crowd was watching, and laughing and egging her on. "You can do it, Chantilly Lace! Just loosen up!"
"Loosen up yourself," she said, but got frustrated again and again and wore finally a pained expression, but wouldn't stop trying. "Shit, I've done this a million times!"
My father, who was still only drinking beer, finished a can and announced in a low blues-DJ voice, "Uh-oh ladies and gentleman, looks like Chantilly Lace has reached her limit!"
"Up yours," she said, and told Kenny to keep on -- and, when she felt our eyes too closely following the developments and waiting, aimed her middle finger at no one in particular.
My brother rolled his eyes at me.
Theresa shook her head saying, "She's an original, that mother of yours."
I went to the middle of the garage hissing, "Maybe you've had too much to drink, Mom."
"Maybe you have," she said ridiculously.
I reached for Kenny's rum and coke, steadying his arm, and pulled it toward my lips and gulped. "Whoa, Denim Kid!" people said. I wiped my lips on my arm and bowed to them. And just then was upstaged by a perfect twirl by my mother. My father shook his head and blushed. My mother had gotten the hang of it and pointed at my father and stabbed and stabbed her finger at him and cackled.
Later I saw Kenny heading through the French doors. I cut through the kitchen and came up behind him in the hallway and he turned. I think I'd freaked him. "Come up on me like that," he said, and I smiled maniacally at him. He started into the bathroom. I reached out and grabbed his ass with both hands and he turned and slapped my face and stuck his finger between my eyes and said, "You don't need to be doing that."
The pointing finger stayed there, suspended, burning the fear of god into me, my eyes and straight through into my head. I had looked at him, at his body -- he was still young -- as something I still knew, still possessed. But this same strength had turned on me. His look was fierce, not at all familiar -- and no need for him to say anything more. I went to bed that night a little drunk, the least of my problems. I lay in bed stunned, and too frightened to cry. I'd gotten myself wrong in all this. I'd gotten Kenny wrong. I'd stay away from him, I resolved, for the rest of the visit.
The next day he and Theresa drove off for several hours and came back with presents for everyone. Theresa had picked out for my mother an immense silk scarf, of a color so neutral and perfectly adaptable to other colors it could go with anything. "Here. Let me show you how you can fold it so you can wear it like a shawl, like a wrap, for church or going out to dinner," Theresa said.
"I love it," my mother said. "It's so unique. What taste. Thank you, thank you! Thank you both, Kenny and Theresa." She turned to my father: "I can wear it to the Diamond Head!"
She winked at me.
We sat in the living room, used only for company, and tried to describe the color. "Well, is it an olive?" my mother said. "Or more of a taupe? Or wait, under the lamp -- that's a mauve!" She folded and unfolded it and draped it across her knees admiring it.
"Beige, best I can make out," my father said, and laughed at himself. He'd gotten a navy-blue velour robe that I coveted -- and it would take me years to wrest it from him and permanantly remove it from his closet (even though he never wore anything, not even pajamas, before going to bed but the underwear he slept in). Long after Kenny and Theresa had broken up and my brother and I had outgrown the sweatsuits they'd gotten us, I kept it and took good care of it, and treated it like a family heirloom. I took it to college, to graduate school. And now that I've moved north, I live and work in it (I work at home). I remember things in it -- I wouldn't get rid of it if you paid me under ten thousand dollars for it. Stains I get on it don't bother me -- I sponge them right off.
I went into the kitchen with my mother to help get the coffee she'd put on when they got back from the stores. She wore a self-satisfied look, somewhere between a smirk and frown -- and she said to me under her breath, "Uh-huh, rich. Grew up with taste. I'd say the boy's landed on his feet."
Well, not exactly. He must have been getting the idea things weren't working out with her even as he continued driving eighteen wheelers for her father's company -- flammable liquids, toxic materials, gasoline. (He told my mother on one of those late-night long distance calls that women like Theresa, when they were through rebelling against their daddies, always ended up going back to living with "their own kind" -- so that in case of a divorce they wouldn't end up losing half their worth.) He was hauling chemicals up from Beaumont and had made it across the Tennessee state line when they caught him. This time it was my mother and not Granny who'd warned him.
In the end, he believed, somebody in the sheriff's department had been tipped off. They seemed to know what they were looking for, rooting into the cab when they'd stopped him for a blown brakelight. My grandfather had had to bale him out -- charging the payoffs to the judge and the lawyers' fees against his inheritance.
He'd been getting his life together in a way that amazed everyone. My grandparents had sold their twenty acres to an investment company that wanted to build a shopping mall and they bought a house away from all the encroachment. They put the money into investments and were frugal and didn't touch the interest but let it accrue, while they were living off social security and my grandfather's pension. That way they could leave a tidy sum to each of their four children. I remember the trip and the house he'd bought in the new subdivision off Germantown Road, but I wasn't aware at the time of the mountain of pot that was piled (as my dad later described it) like garden mulch on the ping-pong table in his basement rec room. ("I kept thinking, Why is it on the ping-pong table, why'd they deliver it like that?") I was sitting upstairs listening to his old albums in his new entertainment center when they came up to get me and we left in unexplained haste. A year later he was out of that house.
The bribes, the reduced inheritance, the women, the cars -- by the time I saw Kenny again I was starting college. He was remarried, in a new house, with a stepson and a new baby son of his own. Once on that trip with Theresa he'd taken me aside and said there were a lot more presents coming. He said he wanted to start acting like an uncle again. Before he left he'd tried to talk my parents into going into business with him and Theresa -- taking over a fish camp and marina on the Gulf Coast. But my father didn't feel like risking everything he'd worked for, and they'd argued.
"Don't get involved with the wrong people," he told me the summer before college. "And stay in school."
We were sitting in the rec room of the house his new wife had brought to the marriage and we were having a beer. "I don't particularly relish the prospect of four more years of this hell."
He smiled at my wording, but there I was in front of him. I was ruined by my continuous rereadings of Catcher in the Rye in the years since I'd last seen him.
"Well," he said, his forehead streaked with lines now, "You're my nephew, and whatever mistakes I've ever made you're welcome to learn from -- because, now, I love you you know." He said my name. "Always have."
My sarcasm and rebellion -- held barely in check under parents laxer than theirs -- I realized had a certain power with adults. I'd been busted in high school for skipping classes and doing the Holden Caulfield routine. I'd cultivated habits worse than drugs -- giving in to bad frames of mind like sloth, self-pity, daydreaming, and delusions of literary grandeur. I'd slept with several of the neighborhood boys on the sly along the way. When my brother got his girlfriend pregnant during his senior year and married her and became a father shortly after graduation, I'd gotten my license to run wild and I worked a series of after-school jobs I'd pick up and quit depending on how long it took the boss to piss me off and make me yell at him and quit. Whatever I earned I'd burn, and I drove around the shitty town feeling trapped waiting for something to happen to me. I'd talked for too long a good line about moving to New York, but I'd been awarded a scholarship to a local college and I bitched about that, too. I said, "I don't want to live at home anymore. I don't want that piece of shit."
"You take it," he said, "you don't need to be messing around. You take it and do right."
I laughed and said, "You know Granny and Grandaddy came down for my graduation just now, in their motor home -- and stayed in it for a week, parked in the street in front of our house."
"I know," he said, "that's because they care about what happens to you and love you."
"I thought you were coming, too."
"I was," he said, "then I got hung up on something up here and I couldn't."
"That's fine, but I've decided I'm not waiting for you anymore."
He laughed and made one of his faces, crossing his eyes and hitting the side of his head as if that might help fix the scrambledy mix-up inside. "Waiting for me," he said, "to what?"
"I don't know, I guess to make me feel special again. Like your real nephew."
"And what would that be?" he said. "What would I be doing differently to do that?"
"I don't know," I said, "stop preaching, like Granny, and start listening?"
Just then his wife came and fell on the sectional next to him across from me. "So what've you boys decided?" she said. She had a beer and sipped it, adding, "Crappy world or okay one?"
"It's okay," I said, but then realized with that I'd dropped my guard. I looked at him for who I knew he had to be. The trouble and care lines were starting to stand out on his face and the hairline that used to be so thick with heartbreaking blond hair had started receding. And she was right for him, pretty enough, resilient I've learned but less of a worshipper. That's what it would take to hang on to him, and suddenly I felt irrelevant.
"I don't hate him," I say to friends I tell the story to, who are always amazed. They have already missed the point. I pull the loosened lapels of my robe together and retie them. I stare at the last blank virtual page on my computer screen. But not even mad that he took something from you? Your childhood? "Childhood? From when I was little I was constantly reminded it was all going to be over someday anyway and I'd have to work, whatever play time I had was borrowed, or stolen. That's how they make you feel -- like a thief who has to make good someday, like work is this great redeeming thing you can pay your debt to society with."
They're gone now, their property bulldozed, the pond filled in, the woods razed, the hills, the fields of tobacco and soybean used to grow along in slopes all leveled, all of it gone to asphalt parking lots. And the uncle who has a good job thanks to the Fed Ex boom, a second family, and a daughter married to a man Granny would approve of -- he isn't the one I'm remembering. Every once in a while I ask myself if I haven't made him up. Only if that's the case, why did I drop my scholarship and flee to Mexico in the middle of the night, leaving my parents a note about a vague unnamable angst I'd only ever read about in books (they'd told me books would save my life, and that I'd do well to adhere to them) -- only to come crawling back and start over?
It's always at this hour, with the city churning outside, that I think of him. When my mind is achingly clear and my heart is at its resting beat, I listen to a rhythmic breathing in the dark, and mark where it starts to race.