Fiction | December 01, 2003
Bernard Jr.'s Uncle Luscious
“We don’t wanna go,” the boys said at the same time. It was the first Saturday of the summer, and they were salting a slug under the pecan tree out back.
Nanan Zanobia adjusted her pillbox hat. “What you mean you don’t warm go?” she asked, pointing her eyes at B. J., who was short, serious and round as a potato. “I know I don’t have to remind you she’s your mother.” Then she pointed her eyes at Luscious, who was long, pretty and thin as a string bean. “And I know I don’t have to remind you she’s your sister.” Nobody knew just how old Nan Zan was or how many other people’s children she’d raised, but everyone agreed she had scary eyes. Her face was dark as a chestnut, but her irises were so light blue they were almost white. “Or am I gonna have to remind you with a switch from this tree?”
‘No, ma’am,” said B. J., looking down at his corrective shoe. For most of his early childhood he’d worn a brace on his right leg, which had been twisted inward at birth, and he still walked with a limp.
“But Nan, I’m supposed to help out Miss Pauline at the Curly-Q today,” whined Luscious. He had a slight lisp and was rumored to be a pansy.
“You got a summerful of Sairdays to be Miss Pauline’s shampoo boy. Today you’re going to visit your sister up at the hospital and stop giving me lip, hear?”
Luscious looked down at the place in front of his bare feet where the salted slug was turning inside out like the wrong side of an eyelid.
“Good Lord. Is that one of God’s creatures?”
“Yes, ma’am,” answered B. J., pushing up on the bridge of his glasses, although they hadn’t slipped down his nose. The slug was writhing and oozing in the dust, like a rabid tongue.
“What I tell you two about tormenting animals?”
“It’s just a bug,” mumbled Luscious, rolling his eyes.
“What I tell you?”
“Do unto others,” they said at the same time.
“That’s right. Everybody ‘just a bug’ to someone else who think they bigger and better. That don’t mean they a bug. It mean someone else got a problem with they eyes. Now get in the house, wash up and throw on your Sunday clothes. We got a bus to catch.”
“I don’t care what she says. A slug is a bug,” Luscious said under his breath as they trudged past the chicken coop toward the back of the shotgun shack, up the sagging porch, through the kitchen and into the airless boxcar of a room they shared.
Luscious had lived there since he was a baby, when his mama ran off to Chicago to sing in a nightclub and got herself stabbed on Blackhawk Street. Bernard had lived there since the age of three, when his mama finally lost her mind at the five and dime after trying twice to drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico and once to slice her wrists with the lid of a peach can. People still talked about it. How she had pushed over one shelf with a half a ton of merchandise onto the one behind it and how all the shelves toppled down in slow motion like a line of dominoes, the last one shattering the storefront window and disfiguring Dudley, the waterhead man, who was sweeping the sidewalk out front. Nobody blamed her after what she’d been through, but everyone agreed with the judge’s order when he sent her over to Biloxi to get her head straightened out.
“And if that place is a hospital then my name’s Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
“Shhh,” whispered B. J. “She can still hear you.”
The boys were twelve and thirteen now. Even though Luscious was only eight months older, he insisted that B. J. call him “Uncle.”
“Miss Pauline was gon’ pay me fitty cents for washing heads, too.”
“Hush, Uncle Luscious. She’ll hear you.”
“So what if she do? Shoot. That’s good hard-earned money I’m losing. How’m I supposed to buy a guitar when I gotta go to the nuthouse on my workday? Look at this thing.” He held up a shoebox with rubber bands stretched over the top and plucked at it. It made a twangy sound that rose up at the end like a question. “You ever see a sorrier instrument than this here?”
B. J. shrugged his shoulders and struggled into the pants of his hand-me-down baby blue Sunday suit. Luscious had grown out of it the year before. Nan Zan had taken up the cuffs of the jacket and pants and let out the waist to fit over B. J.’s belly. The suit was shiny in the spots where Luscious’s elbows and knees had worn it thin, but those spots fell somewhere below B. J.’s elbows and knees.
“That old woman’s got it in for me. I swear.”
“What you mean you dunno?”
“I mean she has a point is all.”
“No she don’t.”
“Yes she do.”
“No she don’t.”
“Yes she do.”
“What’s her point then?”
“How she’s your big sister and all.”
“Half-sister. And she’s your crazy mama. So what?” Luscious looked haphazardly through the chest under their bunkbed.
“So we’re her family. She’s expecting us.”
Luscious sucked his teeth. “She don’t remember either one of us. Or Nan’. Why can’t I find my pants? Didn’t Sarah just sit there staring at the floor last time?”
B. J. didn’t say anything.
“Here they go. Yes she did. Just sat there shimmying her leg and staring at the floor like a zombie. She didn’t even look at those Easter eggs we brung her.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Why not? It’s the truth. Besides, you just got done telling Nan you didn’t want to go any more than me. Where’s my goddamned Sunday shirt?”
“Shhh. In Nan’s wardrobe. She ironed it for you.”
Luscious strode into the room railroaded behind theirs. B. J. clipped on his tie and followed his uncle. Nan s room was almost entirely taken up by a four-poster bed. Above the bed hung a wooden crucifix with a pewter Jesus nailed to it. You could see all of his ribs and the muscles in his stomach. Around the crucifix hung close to two dozen hand-tinted photos of children Nan had brought up. One of them was a dentist now. One of them was a mayor. One of them was B. J.’s daddy. In the picture he looked to be about eighteen years old. He had posed with a baseball bat, crouched in batting stance, smiling into the sun. The picture was blurry, as if the person snapping the shot had forgotten to focus the lens, but you could still see how white his teeth were.
B. J. sat on the bed and pulled at a loose thread in the patchwork quilt. “I don’t mind the nuthouse,” he said, which was a baldfaced lie because he was terrified of the nuthouse.
“Bullshit. I don’t see it in here.” The open wardrobe smelled like mothballs and mildew.
“Hanging next to Nan’s raincoat.”
“Oh.” Luscious stuck his long arms into the sleeves of his starched shirt and buttoned it. He checked himself out in the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door. The mirror was cloudy and freckled, not because it was dirty but because it was ancient. “I look gooood, don’t I?”
“You look awright.”
Luscious whistled at his reflection. “I am one pretty nigger,” he said. “Too bad I got to waste it on a bunch of basket cases.” He looked at B. J. “Hey, you look nice too.”
“Sorry I called your Mama a crazy zombie.”
Pretty much all the white folks on the bus were going to Biloxi to visit someone in prison. Nan Zan and the boys boarded and were making their way down the aisle to the back when a little white boy stuck out his foot. B. J. tripped, lost hold of the library book he’d been carrying and fell flat on his face. Several people snickered.
“Jasper John!” said the little boy’s mother. She had so much makeup on her face that she looked like a clown. “Did you just do what I think you did?”
Nan stopped to give B. J. a hand.
“Step to the back, auntie,” called the bus driver.
“Did you just trip him?”
“Don’t you fib.”
“He fell on his own. See?” He pointed at B. J.’s corrective shoe. “He’s a cripple.”
“You oughta be ashamed.”
“For acting up, that’s what. If your father was here, he’d smack you silly.”
B. J. adjusted his glasses, which had slipped off. He blinked his eyes. He saw his library book under a seat and reached for it. A foot kicked it, and it slid back under the next seat, too far for him to reach. Someone giggled above him. He crawled toward the book and reached for it again. Another foot stomped down on the back of his hand and twisted, hard, like it was putting out a cigarette. B. J. yanked his hand free, grabbed his book and pushed himself up. His hand throbbed. So did his chin, from where it had struck the floor of the bus.
“Just say you’re sorry to the poor colored boy.”
“I’m sorry to the poor fat colored boy,” said Jasper John, looking at the ceiling of the bus.
“I swear, if your father was here—”
“Well he ain’t,” said Jasper John, crossing his arms, “so shut your pie hole.”
His mother smacked him.
B. J. sucked in his stomach, limped to the back of the bus and sat next to Nan Zan. “Cracker trash,” Luscious said under his breath. “You awright?” he asked. A muscle under his eye twitched.
Nan Zan straightened B. J.’s jacket. “Lord have mercy, would you look at this,” she muttered. Someone’s chewing gum had stuck to one of the lapels. She pulled a napkin out of the pail on her lap and dabbed at it. The gum was sticky and had melted in the heat. It stretched out like a tightrope. She scraped at it with her hat pin, but a pink spot remained. “I’ll get the rest out later with some salt, honeylamb,” she said.
B. J. opened his library book. It was Oliver Twist, and several pages were missing, but he liked it anyway because it was about an orphan. He was only allowed to check one book out of the bookmobile at a time. In one week he had already read Oliver Twist twice, and another week would pass before the bookmobile came around again on its summer schedule. He stared at what someone had scrawled on the inside cover in pencil. The words blurred up so he couldn’t make them out, but he remembered what they said: “Gracie Champlain is a Grade A slut.” He turned to the first page. His hands were shaking, and his face was hot.
“Look at me, Bernard Jr.” Nan Zan took his chin in her hand. She wet her thumb with her tongue and rubbed away the streak of dirt on his cheek. She looked at his face. “I’m so proud of you.”
“I know,” he said.
It smelled like a zoo in the east wing. Most of the patients were tied to their bed frames. One of them screamed somewhere, and the sound reverberated against the mint green walls. Then someone else screamed. This reminded B. J. of birdcall. He couldn’t tell where exactly the screaming was coming from.
There were four patients to a room, and none of the rooms had doors. B. J. tried not to look, but Luscious was staring. It was difficult to tell the men from the women except for a couple of individuals who were naked. Everyone else wore standard-issue white cotton pajamas and white ankle socks. Some of the patients were bleeding at the ankles and wrists where their restraints had rubbed them raw, and some of them had soiled themselves, and some of them had shaved heads, and some of them were veterans who had lost limbs or eyes in the War.
One man was missing both his legs. They’d been amputated above his hips. He was propped up against his headboard, sitting on his pillow, and when the boys passed his room he stretched out his arms and pretended to shoot bullets at them through his pointer fingers. Luscious told B. J. he bet they’d cut off that man’s pecker, judging from where his body ended, and he probably wore a garbage bag for underpants to catch his mess.
“Maybe so,” said B. J.
They were lagging behind Nan and the Assistant Director, who led them down the long hallway.
“Why did you move her to this wing?” Nan asked.
“She had an episode, and we thought she’d be better off here,” said the Assistant Director. He wore a white coat and carried a clipboard.
“What happened?” asked Nan.
“We took care of it, and she’s doing much better now.”
“Well, when do you expect to move her back to the north wing?”
“That depends on several factors. Here we are.” He looked at his clipboard, stepped into the doorway and called to the woman in the second bed from the left, “Sarah, your folks are here.”
The woman turned her head to them. She was thirty-one years old, and her hair was completely white. The bed sheet was pulled up to her armpits. It was also white. Her face was pretty and looked a little like both of the boys’ although neither one of them resembled the other. There was a bandage on the side of her neck. She turned her head away.
“Good Lord,” said Nan. “What happened to her neck?”
“That’s self inflicted. Please try not to excite her and don’t undo the restraints. That’s just a precaution so she wont hurt herself again.”
Nan and the boys stepped over to Sarah’s bed. There weren’t any chairs in the room, so they stood there. The room smelled vaguely antiseptic.
“I just don’t understand this,” said Nan.
“Remember to sign out at the front on your way out,” called the Assistant Director. Then he was gone.
Nan handed her pail to Luscious. “Hey there, Sarah,” she said sitting at the top of the bed. “Do these hurt?” She started to untie the restraints.
“Don’t,” blurted B. J. “She might hurt herself.”
“I’ll just loosen them a little to make her more comfortable. Look, Sarah. I brought your baby brother. Say hello, Luscious.”
“Hey, Sarah. How you makin’ it?”
“And here’s your son. Give your mama a kiss, Bernard Jr.”
“In a minute.”
“Look how much he’s grown since Easter. Everybody says he’s the spitting image of his daddy. Just a little more hefty. Tell her your good news, sugar.”
“You tell her.”
“Bernard Jr. here won himself a scholarship to a fancy boys’ school up in New Orleans. He’ll be moving up there end of August so he can start in September. This the last time you’ll see him before he shoves off. It’s a Catholic boarding school. They say he so smart they gon’ skip him two grades and put him in the high school. They gon’ take up a collection for him at St. Rose de Lima, too, for the school uniform and all those books he gonna need.”
“And I got a job at the Curly-Q,” added Luscious.
Nan Zan stroked Sarah’s hair. “When’s the last time they combed your hair, sugarpie? I should have brought my comb.”
A dry noise came from Sarah’s throat.
“What’s that, Sarah? Is there something you need, honey? Bring me that pail, Luscious.”
Luscious stepped forward with the pail.
“If you’re hungry, I brought you some fried shrimp and some pound cake and some sweet peas from my garden. If you’re thirsty, I have lemonade. Bernard Jr. squeezed the lemons for me.”
“I’m hungry!” announced the woman in the first bed. “I’m starving.” She had two depressions in her forehead, as if someone had scooped two spoonfulls out of a mound of dough. Her head was covered with gray stubble, and she had whiskers on her chin.
“Well, we got plenty to go around,” said Nan, standing up and smoothing her dress. “I’m gonna go see if I can’t talk to the Director about all this and get some new dressing for that neck wound. Luscious, bring the lady some shrimp. I’ll be back soon.”
“Her hands are tied,” said Luscious.
“You can feed me,” the woman said. “I won’t bite.”
Luscious went over with the pail. Nan went to find the director. B. J. sat where Nan had been at the head of the bed and looked at the side of his mother’s face, which was turned away from him. He looked at her ear. It was filled with rust-colored wax. He looked at the bandage on her neck. It was dirty.
“Hey, Mama,” he said.
“Just drop it in my mouth, boy,” instructed the woman in the first bed. “I still have all my teeth. See?” She bared her teeth. They were yellow and stained. Luscious started feeding her shrimp.
“Delicious,” she said with her mouth full. “Much obliged.”
“Nan made it. She’s a good cook.”
“I’ll say. She your granny?”
“Nan? Naw, she’s my—she’s just Nan.”
“My Granny was a hooker in New Orleans…” sang the woman. “You know that little ditty?”
“Never did hear that one.”
“That’s ’cause I just now made it up.”
“Too bad I didn’t bring my guitar,” said Luscious. “We could have played a duet. More shrimp?”
“You bet, sonny.” She smacked her lips. “I notice you’re staring at my noggin.”
“Oh … pardon.”
“No need for apologies. You wanna know why it look the way it do?”
She lowered her voice. “They interfered with my brain and took out my memory.”
Luscious looked at B. J. B. J. looked at Luscious. Luscious looked back at the woman. “Did it hurt much?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Don’t be. Worse things have happened. They could have taken my heart. Or my intestines. Oh, they take any old body part they please and run scientific experiments on ’em. Liver, kidneys, stomach, what-have-you. I’ve seen it done more times than I care to speak of. More shrimp, please.”
“I think I better save the rest for Sarah,” Luscious said, although B. J. wound up eating the remaining shrimp on the long bus ride home, one after the other, without hardly chewing.
“Suit yourself. It’s real good of you to come visit your mama.”
“She’s not my mama. She’s my half-sister. We got the same daddy.”
“I see. She’s a awright roommate for a colored girl. She’s better than them two chowderheads,” she said, referring to the women in beds three and four, both of whom appeared comatose and were drooling. “I like your sister, but she don’t say much.”
“Oh, she don’t talk at all. She stopped speaking altogether when she lost her mind at the five and dime.”
“That ain’t true. She said something just last night.”
“What’d she say?” B. J. piped in.
“Sounded like she said, ‘Steal home.”‘
“Steal home?” asked B. J.
“I believe that’s what she said. She wont say it again, though. They went in and took her throat.”
“Look at me, Mama,” said B. J.
Sarah arched her back then and screamed. It was a long scream that echoed off the walls and was answered by someone down the hall.
“What do you think she meant?” asked B. J. They were lying in the shade of the pecan tree. B. J. was finishing Oliver Twist for the third time. He had a bruise on his chin and on the back of his hand. Luscious was picking out a song on his shoebox guitar. He had a cut on his finger. The sun was going down, but it was still hot.
“Steal home. I figure she might have been talking ’bout my daddy.”
“Since he played baseball and all?”
Almost everything B. J. knew about his daddy was from the old men at Benoit’s Barbershop. Those men still talked about Bernard Boudroux’s potential batting average like it was legend. From what B. J. had gathered, his daddy had everything going for him before he died. He had just married Sarah, worked a good job managing the icehouse at night and had been visited by a scout from the Negro American League when he was killed. Nobody would talk about how it happened.
“That story’s too ugly to pass on,” Nan Zan would say, “but it had a happy ending, and that’s you.” B. J. had been born premature, two weeks on the heels of his daddy’s death.
He tried to assemble snatches of information about his parents in a way that would explain what had gone wrong. He couldn’t remember much about his mama except talcum powder on her breasts and hiding under her skirt. People said she’d been a remarkable beauty, that a white traveling life insurance salesman from San Francisco had asked her to marry him when she was just sixteen. So had Moe Haskell, who ran the colored funeral home, but she only had eyes for his daddy, they said. B. J. always imagined that something bad had gone down at the icehouse, that his daddy had been killed in that place, possibly crushed by a block of ice, as by an elephant.
The barbershop stories were clues that pricked his ears. King Benoit would start, while conking somebody’s head to look like Nat King Cole. “Your daddy was some strongman slugger. He coulda been the next Turkey Stearnes.”
“He coulda been better than Turkey Stearnes. He coulda been the next Josh Gibson,” Oscar Brown or somebody else playing checkers in the corner would add. “When he was in high school, your daddy batted .351.”
“One year your daddy hit fifty-four home runs.”
“And he was fast.”
“Lord almighty, he was fast.”
“We called him the Iceman.”
“Your daddy could go from first to third on a bunt.”
“He could steal two bases on one pitch.”
“Once he hit a single up the middle and got hit by the same ball he batted when he slid into second.”
“Your daddy was so fast he could cut off the light and hop into bed before the room went dark.”
Then they would start running off stories about Cool Papa Bell and Smokey Joe Williams and especially Satchell Paige. B. J. would get these stories confused in his mind. He’d look up at the picture of Jackie Robinson over the barbershop sink and halfway think it was his daddy.
“It’s a shame what happened to your daddy,” someone would finish, picking up the Jet magazine they had left off reading to talk about baseball. The room would grow reverently silent then, until the man in the barber chair would clear his throat and complain about the job King was doing on his head.
Hearing these stories made B. J. more sad than proud. He had no aptitude for sports on account of his leg and could never follow in his father’s shoes. He sensed he was a disappointment to the old men.
He thought about what his mama meant by “Steal home,” if it was a message or a clue. Through the leaves of the pecan tree, the sky was now the color of the inside of a peach. The katydids were singing in the grass. Katy-did, Katy-didn’t, Katy-did.
“I’m bored,” said Luscious. “Let’s go gig a frog or somethin’.”
The summer wore on. The days spun out like one long endless day. On Sundays they sat through mass at St. Rose de Lima and lit candles for Sarah. On Saturdays Luscious washed heads at the Curly-Q. Every other Friday the bookmobile rolled around and B. J. borrowed a book. They listened to the radio. They helped Nan weed her garden, bordered by sun-bleached seashells. They tortured small animals and insects. They swam in the bay. They avoided talking about how B. J. was going to leave when the summer was up.
One day in July they were lying out back when a cricket jumped from Nan’s patch of black-eyed Susans and landed near B. J.’s head. He quickly cupped his hand over it. It tickled his palm.
“I got a cricket,” said B. J.
“Rip off her wings and legs. No! How ’bout leave one leg on her and set her down.”
“Awright.” B. J. was methodical about yanking her apart. He lined up her wings and legs on top of his library book, On Walden Pond. Then he dropped her in the dirt, where she twitched around in a circle with her one remaining leg.
“Go, Fat Sally, go,” said Luscious. The boys leaned on their elbows and watched. Eventually she stopped moving.
“Gimme your glasses,” said Luscious.
Luscious caught the sun in one of the lenses and aimed it at the bug. She began to struggle in the hot pinpoint of light.
“One Miss’ippi, two Miss’ippi, three Miss’ippi, four Miss’ippi, five Miss’ippi, six Miss’ippi, seven Miss’ippi, eight Miss’ippi, nine Miss’ippi. . .” B. J. thought about the words “steal home”—how when you put the two words together it meant running into base when the other team wasn’t looking and probably sliding and getting dirt on your pants and cheering and pats on the back from your teammates if you made it, but also how in another way it could mean robbing someone of their house or their land, stealing it from them and making it yours and sending them packing like those Indians on the Trail of Tears, and how in a third way it sounded like steel home, a house made of steel, a bulletproof place for a superman to live . . . “forty-two Miss’ippi, forty-three Miss’ippi, forty-four Miss’ippi, forty-five Miss’ippi, fortysix Miss’ippi, forty-seven Miss’ippi, forty-eight Miss’ippi—”
“She’s cooked,” said Luscious. “What’s the time?”
The cricket’s body had turned black and shrunk.
“Almost beat my record.”
“That’s funny. I’m leaving in forty-eight days.”
Luscious’s expression changed. B. J. offered him the cricket legs.
“What I want them for? It’s the wings make the song.”
“I’m keeping her wings. I’m the one who caught her.”
“Suit yourself, Shakespeare,” said Luscious, chucking the glasses back at his nephew. They landed in the dirt next to the shriveled insect. B. J. picked them up, wiped them off on the bib of his overalls and put them back on.
“Don’t call me that.”
“You mad or somethin’?”
“I’m bored.” Luscious lay down like a corpse, with his arms folded over his chest, and closed his eyes. “Bored, bored, bored.”
B. J. picked up the wings. They were impossibly light and veined like leaves. He stepped over his uncle and limped over to the back porch, under which the boys kept two cigar boxes full of feathers, claws, fur, shells, beaks and headless dragonflies. He added the wings to the box marked “B. J.” He was hungry.
He could hear Nan Zan snoring inside even though she had her bedroom shutters closed to keep cool for her afternoon nap. Stepping as lightly as he could, he made his way up the porch steps and into the kitchen. He crept over to the icebox, snuck out the stick of butter, dipped it in the sugar bowl and bit into it like it was a candy bar.
“B. J.?” called Nan Zan from two rooms down. “That you in the butter?”
B. J. froze in his tracks and waited for the old woman’s breathing to become regular again. Instead, she padded into the kitchen in her mules.
“I knew it. Keep your monkey paws off the butter, chile.” She swiped it out of his hand and stuck it back in the icebox. “I’m expecting company tomorrow. I might just need that butter to whip up a cake. Don’t you think a piece of chocolate cake on a plate would taste better than a stick of stolen butter?” She winked at him.
“Now let an old lady catch a nap in peace.”
“What is it?”
“What do you think she meant?”
B. J.’s stomach growled. “Never mind.”
Outside, Luscious was stretched out in the shade of the pecan tree, looking up and contemplating its leaves. B. J. rejoined him.
“I’m bored,” said Luscious.
B. J. scratched his head. “I wish it was Friday already.” The bookmobile was coming around that Friday. “I guess we could go down to the beach and watch the shrimp boats. Maybe take a dip.”
“Awright. Ain’t nothing better to do,” said Luscious. “Grab our slingshots and let’s go.”
They walked along the train tracks in the direction of the bay.
“Hurry up, slowpoke,” said Luscious.
“I’m looking for skipping stones,” said B. J. He was out of breath. Soon they came upon the old icehouse. It had been unused for a few years, now that everyone had refrigerated iceboxes, and had fallen into a state of disrepair. Some of the planks had been stolen for lumber. Part of the roof had caved in. There were weeds and blackberry bushes growing out front like unkempt hair.
“There’s the old icehouse,” said Luscious.
“Yep,” said B. J., looking down at his corrective shoe. The icehouse made him uneasy. He squatted down and picked up a stone that wasn’t at all good for skipping and put it in his pocket.
“Looks like someone’s movin’ in.”
There were several large wooden packing crates piled outside. Some of them were as tall as six feet. “Those look like coffins. Let’s go peek,” said Luscious.
“Don’t you wanna know who’s movin in?”
“That place still give you the heebie-jeebies? Awright then. You just wait here a minute. I’m gonna go see what’s what.”
B. J. squatted down on the far side of the tracks with his back to the icehouse. It was high noon, and he was squatting on top of his own shadow. The heat was sitting low on the ground, making witchwater up and down the train tracks. He wrapped his arms around his knees and wished he’d brought his library book and wished he had some ice cream and wished his uncle would hurry up. He couldn’t help imagining the inside of the icehouse, although he tried not to. He tried to think about On Walden Pond and the uniform he was going to wear to school in September, but his mind kept wandering to the icehouse behind him, not as it was now, decrepit and chewed on by termites, and not as he had ever known it to be, but as he imagined it had been when his father worked inside, hauling the bricks of ice and cutting off chunks of them with a pickax. Since he had only seen his daddy in the one photograph, the man he imagined was an amalgamation of men from movies and comic books and the barbershop stories, a man who walked like Jackie Robinson.
The icehouse in his mind was cool and damp inside, dark like St. Rose at nighttime. It sounded like a dripping faucet. The blocks of ice shone as if illuminated from within. They were heavy, and his father was tremendously strong to be able to lift them onto his shoulders. He imagined his father’s muscles bulge as he picked at the ice with a motion of his arm like a blacksmith hammering steel. The Iceman. The ghost. With each blow, sparks of ice flew out like little filaments of fire. “Here,” said Luscious. He thrust a handful of blackberries at B. J. “Nobody’s there right now, but there’s a cot up against the wall and a broom. Somebody’s movin’ in, that’s for sure. I’ll have another look-see on our way back.”
The blackberries were overripe. B. J. tasted one. It was both too sour and too sweet at the same time. A needle of pain shot up through a small cavity in one of his molars and carried through his jaw to his ear canal. He spat into the dust between his knees, dropped the rest of the berries and stood up.
“What’d you go and do that for?” asked Luscious.
“Ain’t you hungry? You always hungry.”
“I didn’t want ’em. Let’s go.”
“Look!” said Luscious.
“A inchworm.” It was crawling out of one of the blackberries B. J. had dropped. It was the color of a new blade of grass.
“It’s a tiny baby.” B. J. reached out his hand to touch it.
Luscious slapped it away. “Nuh-uh. He’s mine. I saw him first.”
The inchworm lifted its front half and looked around to get its bearings. Then it started inching back in the direction of the icehouse.
“What you gon’ do to him?”
“Let’s see if he don’t turn into two inchworms when I cut him in half.”
Luscious dissected the inchworm with his thumbnail. Neither half moved or was consequential enough to keep.
They came to the road by the water, which was dark blue and spotted with foam. There were a few white people splashing there and a few more scattered on beach chairs under umbrellas to keep from getting sunburned. The sand was fine as sugar.
“Would you look at that,” said Luscious. “They take up the whole beach and don’t hardly use it.”
They turned left on the beach road and walked three-quarters of a mile to the colored beach. It was rocky and packed with children. Further out, where the bay opened into the gulf, a fleet of shrimp boats bobbed in the water, dragging their nets beneath them.
The boys stripped down to their drawers and raced into the water, up to their necks. They dog-paddled past some little kids playing Marco Polo; then they dog-paddled toward the dock.
“Looks kinda crowded,” said B. J. They came closer.
Gracie Champlain was sitting on the edge of the dock in her polkadot two-piece, kicking her long brown legs. Purnell Jackson and the gang were surrounding her like buzzards, trying to convince her to jump in and take off her top underwater for a buffalo nickel. One of them hooked his finger under the strap across her back and snapped it. He had a hard-on.
“Hey,” called Gracie, pointing at Luscious and B. J. “It’s the little piggy and the big sissy.” The boys on the dock laughed and slapped their thighs. Gracie heard them laughing and kept going. “We’d make room for y’all up here, but you stink.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Shut up, Gracie,” said Luscious.
“You gon’ make me?”
“Let’s go back,” urged B. J. He was getting tired of treading water.
“You a pansy right? Ain’t it true you don’t like females?” Gracie asked.
“He likes girls,” panted B. J., “just not your kind.”
Gracie squinted her eyes. “What you mean, Porky Pig?”
“Word on the street is, you’re a Grade A slut.”
The gang laughed even harder at that.
Gracie stuck out her jaw. “What’s so funny, Purnell?”
“Well, it’s just—” he looked at his friends, “you gotta admit that’s kinda true.”
Gracie’s face crumpled up. She stood and thumped down the dock toward the shore. The salt wind carried their laughter right behind her.
“First one to that buoy there gets my buffalo nickel,” said Purnell, and they all canonballed into the water like hydrogen bombs.
Luscious and B. J. climbed up onto the dock.
B. J. lay on his back and looked at the clouds. He thought of his mother’s hair. He was breathing heavily. Luscious sat at the edge, where Gracie had been, and looked out at the shrimp boats on the horizon. “She just jealous ’cause you’re smarter than she is,” he said. “And I’m prettier.”
B. J. fell asleep for what felt like a long time, but when he woke up everything was the same. The little boys were still calling, “Marco!” “Polo.” Luscious was still looking out at the boats. The clouds still looked like his mother’s hair. Everything was a little blurry without his glasses, and the sun hurt his eyes. He closed them. “Uncle Luscious,” he started, “when I go up to New Orleans—” Then he heard a splash, and a spray of water hit him. He opened his eyes and saw that his uncle had vanished.
“Look,” said Luscious on the way back. There was a red pickup parked outside the icehouse, and all of the crates had apparently been taken inside, where it sounded like someone was hammering. “Someone’s here.”
“Looks like it.”
“How’m I supposed to see inside? They shut the door.”
“You could knock.”
“Are you crazy? That could be a ax murderer in there.”
“You could peek through the cracks.”
“I couldn’t see nothing but his feet that way. Help me up on the roof. I’m gon’ look in that hole.”
B. J. looked up to the roof. There was a large crow sitting in the rain scuttle looking down at them. “I dunno about this.”
“C’mon. Don’t you wanna know who’s in there?” Luscious crept around to the back of the icehouse. B. J. followed. “Lock your fingers together and gimme a boost. Yeah, like that. That’s good.” He grabbed the lip of the roof and lifted himself up. It wasn’t difficult, since the icehouse was partly underground and the roof was low. As he started crawling toward the hole, the crow hopped over from the other side of the roof. It opened its wings and started squawking. With its wings open like that, it looked big as a dog.
“Shoo,” said Luscious.
“Caaaaw,” said the crow, pecking at his leg.
“Help!” Luscious called. “Get him off me!” He made himself into a ball. “Get him off me!”
B. J. pulled his slingshot out of his back pocket and the unused skipping stone out of his front pocket. He closed one eye, aimed for the crow’s head and shot, just as the door to the icehouse opened. Luscious and the crow came tumbling off the roof and landed in a heap.
“Owww,” moaned Luscious.
“You killed Jim,” said a light-skinned black man wearing yellow suspenders, a wifebeater and a mustache. He looked to be about fifty.
“That’s your bird?” asked B. J.
“That was my bird. Looks like you clipped him in the head.”
“I’m sorry, Mister. Really sorry.”
“Owww, my shoulder.”
“You called him Jim?” B. J. asked.
“Yes. That was Jim Crow.”
“If I hadda known he belonged to you I wouldna shot him. It’s just, he was beating on my uncle.”
“Your uncle was spying. And trespassing.”
“I just wanted to see who was inside,” said Luscious, rubbing his shoulder.
The man went over and stood above Luscious with his fists on his hips. His shadow fell over the boy. “Me,” he said. “That’s who. Now that you know, you can bury Jim.”
“With what?” asked Luscious.
“Your bare hands will do. Start digging.”
Luscious started digging.
“Where do you two live?”
“We stay at the end of Saw Log Lane,” said B. J.
Slowly, the man grinned. “In a pink shotgun shack?”
Luscious looked up with wide eyes.
“Yeah. How’d you know that?” B. J. asked.
The man turned around and walked back into the icehouse. “When you’re done with Jim, come inside,” he called. “I’m not finished with you.”
The boys plucked and pocketed two of Jim’s tail feathers. Then they took their sweet time burying him.
“What do you think he’s gonna do to us?” whispered Luscious.
“I don’t think we should go in.”
“He knows where we live.”
“You shouldna told him.”
“We better just go get what we got coming.”
They stepped down into the icehouse. The man was up on a stool, brandishing a saw.
“Sweet Jesus,” said Luscious.
The man looked up at the hole in the ceiling. “This is going to make a fine skylight when I’m through,” he said.
B. J. was surprised at how cramped it was inside. In his mind, the icehouse had always been deep, like a cave, but this looked more like a little barn.
“One of you can take that broom there and sweep up. The other can start opening those.” He pointed at the wooden crates that were lined up against the wall opposite the door. Then he started ripping at the ceiling. Luscious went for the broom. B. J. walked up to one of the bigger crates. He pried off its side and was flooded in an avalanche of newspaper confetti. A face looked down at him.
“It’s a stone lady,” he gasped.
“It’s a sculpture,” laughed the man. “That’s what I do.”
The next day they went into town to look at the guitar Luscious was saving to buy from the pawnshop with his shampoo money. Dudley, the waterhead man, was polishing the knickknacks. His face was badly scarred.
“Ain’t she fine?” said Luscious. The guitar had no strings but was so shiny you could see your face in it. There was a five-dollar price tag around its neck.
“Don’t be putting your grubby fingers on that guitar, boy,” said the junkman behind the counter. He was chewing on a toothpick.
“I’m saving to buy it.”
“Git out and come back when you got the money.”
Dudley dropped a china figurine. It was a bride, and she broke in half at the waist when she hit the floor. “Uh-oh, uh-oh,” said Dudley, holding his head.
“That’s it, Frankeniggerstein,” said the junkman, “you can forget about getting paid this week.”
They passed by Miss Mary’s house on the way back. She was out on her front porch reading the newspaper.
“Hey, Miss Mary,” called the boys at the same time.
“Hey, boys.” She waved. “You getting ready to go up to New Orleans, B. J.?”
“Never thought I’d see the day. We’re all so proud of you, son.”
At home, Nan and the man from the icehouse were sitting in the front room with plates of German chocolate cake balanced on their laps.
“There they are!” said Nan.
“We just wanted to see who was inside!” said Luscious.
“We didn’t mean any harm,” added B. J.
“What are you going on about?” asked Nan. “I’d like you to meet Roland Favré. This is Luscious and Bernard Jr., B. J. for short.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the man from the icehouse.
“Mr. Favré’s been in Europe. He used to stay under my roof long time ago. Now he’s a world-famous artist.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“That’s why I did. I don’t raise duds.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Luscious and B. J. at the same time.
“Are you on Nan’s wall?” asked B. J.
“I’m the one in the sailor suit,” said Roland Favré.
“Bernard Jr. here reminds me of you when you were small, Roland. He goes through books like nobody’s business. Matter fact, he just won himself a scholarship to a fancy boys’ school up in New Orleans. He’s gon’ be a professor.”
“Is that so.”
“Yessir,” said B. J.
“He’s the first colored boy they ever admitted.”
“You must be very proud, Zanobia.”
“I’m saving to buy a guitar,” said Luscious.
On the first Saturday in August, while Luscious was helping Miss Pauline at the beauty parlor, B. J. sat on a stool in the center of the old icehouse rereading another library book while Roland sculpted his head.
The icehouse had transformed. Roland Favré had cleared away the weeds and installed two windows in each wall, in addition to the one in the ceiling. The place was flooded with light.
“Hold your chin up a little more.”
“Is that Gabriel?” asked B. J., referring to a bronze bust with threefoot wings.
“No. That’s just a regular angel without a name.”
“Oh. I guess he’s my favorite out of all of them.” His eyes scanned the studio and stopped on the plaster head of a man with a rope around his neck. “Who’s that one?” he asked. The face was contorted in pain.
“That’s the angel’s head.”
“But—they don’t look like they go together.”
“All my sculptures go together. They’re all different parts of the same being. Yours will be part of it too, when I’m done.”
B. J. thought about that for a little while. Then he asked, “Are you a communist?”
Roland grinned. “Who told you that?”
“My uncle said they were talking about you at the Curly-Q. They were calling you a Red.”
“That’s probably the only piece of gossip those old hens had right.”
“You mean you are a communist?”
“Yes, I’m a communist. Hold still.”
B. J. held still for a long time. His butt started to go numb. A freight train rolled by, shaking the studio with the tail of its wind. “Mr. Favré?”
“Why’d you move back here?”
“I missed home. Try to keep your head steady. I thought I’d come back for a spell when I heard this place was for sale.”
“My father used to work here when it was a icehouse. He was a baseball player too.”
“Is that right?”
“He was going to play for the Birmingham Black Barons.”
“I hate it here. When I leave, I’m never coming back.”
“That’s how I used to feel.” Roland dipped his right hand in a bucket of water at his feet and smoothed his palm over the ball of clay. “You know what I missed when I was gone?”
“The way the bay smells. And the Spanish moss in the trees. Turn clockwise. That’s good. Stay like that. Hold your chin up.” He started shaving off the excess clay with his knife. “This place is beautiful and ugly at the same time. Just like a human being.”
A slight woman in a droopy yellow hat stood on the front porch holding her son’s hand. He was so skinny his wrist bones were poking out. Nan answered the door.
“Sorry to bother you,” said the woman.
“You’re not bothering me, Ophelia,” said Nan. “I’m happy to see you. It’s been a while. My, my, is this your little boy?”
Nan put her hands on her knees and bent down. “He sure has grown, hasn’t he?”
“Say hello to Ms. Zanobia, Willie.”
“H-h-h-hey,” said Willie. His two front teeth were missing.
“Would you two like to come in?”
“No, thank you. We can’t stay; we just come by to ask—I’m heading to Detroit next month to see about a job, and I heard one of your boys was moving out.”
“So I was wondering if Willie here could stay with you for a while.” “Of course,” Nan said. She put her hand on the boy’s head and tilted it back slightly, so he was looking up at her.
“Of course he can.”
“Just ’til I get settled up there and can save up enough to send for him.”
“Ain’t That a Shame,” was playing full volume on the radio. B. J. was watching Luscious dance with Nan in the lamplight of the kitchen. The shutters were open to let in the night air. “Shake your hips, Nan!” shouted Luscious. “Pretend you’re wearing a red satin dress!” He twirled her around and dipped her.
“Let me go, chile, I can’t breathe,” she laughed.
Luscious picked up his brand-new secondhand guitar and started playing along with the song. B. J. put his head down on the table and started to cry. He was leaving in three days.
“Bernard Jr.?” Nan came over and put her hand on his back. “Shut that off, Luscious. What is it? What’s troubling you, brown sugar?”
B. J. just sobbed.
“Luscious, bring your nephew another piece of pecan pie.”
“I don’t want it,” B. J. choked.
“Good Lord, something must be truly the matter. Come on; let’s go sit on the porch. You can tell me all about it and I can smoke my pipe. Luscious, cut that noise and finish the dishes.”
B. J. slumped down on the steps. Nan eased into her rocking chair. “I think that fool broke my back.” She started filling her pipe with tobacco. The cicadas were buzzing a blanket of sound over them. A sphinx moth hovered in the gypsum weed growing by the steps. Beyond that it was blackness. There was no moon, and you couldn’t see as far as the pecan tree. B. J.’s eyes stung. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Nan held a match to the bowl of her pipe and drew in several quick little kisses to light the tobacco. They sat like that for a long time.
“Out of all the children I’ve raised, your daddy was the cockiest,” she said. “Used to roll up his sleeves and strut around here like a peacock. He was pretty, and he knew it. Sort of like your Uncle Luscious,” she laughed. “All the girls was sweet on him, and he broke every one of their hearts when he married your mama. But they was a perfect match. You couldn’t find a better-looking pair than them two.”
Nan exhaled a series of smoke rings. They dilated and dissolved, one after the other. “The only thing he loved more than your mama was baseball. You heard about that I guess.”
B. J. nodded his head.
“When your daddy was six or seven he asked me for a baseball bat. I got him one for Christmas—he must have been six ’cause he couldn’t read yet. We come out back here so I could throw him some pitches. Let me tell you, that bat was bigger than he was, so I pitched the ball real slow. Underhand. He swung at it and he missed and he got this real mad look on his face. So I pitched to him again and the same thing happened again. I threw the ball for him twenty times and he missed twenty times. Then he said, ‘Throw it like they do for real.’ So I pitched overhand to him and he whacked that ball so hard it broke the window behind you.”
B. J. turned his head and looked at the window. He could see Luscious in there, scrubbing the supper dishes.
Nan’s voice slowed down. “Some people was jealous of your daddy. It looked like he was gonna make a success of himself, and they called him uppity. He wasn’t uppity; he was headstrong and proud. But they didn’t see it like that. So they made a example of him.”
B. J. started shimmying his leg on the porch step. “What they do to him?”
“A bunch of them got liquored up and ambushed him over at the icehouse one night. He used to work a midnight shift and then cart the ice around, starting when the sun came up. Sleep in the morning. Wake up in the afternoon.”
“What they do to him?”
“They kilt him.”
Nan lowered her pipe, then raised it again and took a puff. “They lit him on fire.”
B. J.’s leg stopped shimmying. He sat very still.
“Next afternoon Sarah came over here all upset. They were renting a little place on Hickama Street at the time, and they were getting ready to leave for Birmingham after you was born. It wasn’t nothing but a fixed-up lean-to really, but Sarah made it cozy in there. She came over here and told me Bernard never came home and she had a bad feeling. So we went knocking on doors, asking folks if he delivered their ice that morning, and they all said no.
“We went by the icehouse and asked Dollar Hemply if he knew anything. Dollar said when he come to work, the door was wide open, and some of the ice was melting where the sunshine was coming in. When he said that I felt real cold, and I knew something was wrong.”
Indoors, Luscious started plucking his new guitar. The notes flew out at them like bats.
“The last place I could think to look was the baseball field. I told Sarah he probably went over there to practice some with some friends. I was trying to calm her down. Dollar rode us over there in the cart and what we saw—it looked like someone had a bonfire in the middle of the baseball diamond, right where the pitcher’s mound was, and it was still smoking.”
Nan cleared her throat.
“Then we saw Bernard—what was left—hanging up in a oak tree over to the side of the field. Sarah said it wasn’t him, but I knew it was. I just knew. After the funeral she went back with an ax to chop down that tree. Broke her water trying. That’s how you come into the world.”
B. J. didn’t know what to say, so he didn’t say anything. He hugged his shoulders with his arms and looked between his knees. He felt seasick, and his mouth was dry.
“Hate works like a circle if you don’t stop it somewhere. I didn’t tell you all this before now ’cause I didn’t want you hating God and hating them. If you thought that—if you came up hating them ’cause of what they did, you couldn’t come so far. But look at you. Look how you been blessed by God. I’m so proud of you.”
Out in the blackness a screech owl cried. The porch seemed to tilt then. B. J. stretched his neck out like a turtle and vomited over the steps.
“I don’t wanna go,” said Luscious. It was raining. He was up in the pecan tree, and all you could see were his legs. Nan’ was standing below him in her lavender dress, holding an umbrella. B. J. and his suitcase were waiting out front in Roland Favré’s truck.
“What you mean you don’t wanna go?”
“Don’t make me climb that tree, Luscious.”
“I don’t have to go if I don’t feel like it. You can’t make me.”
“You get your monkey tail down here right now.”
“You gon’ make him miss his train.”
“I don’t care. It ain’t like we brothers.”
“If you don’t come down this second—”
“Noooooo!” yelled Luscious. The word cracked in the middle.
Two minutes later Nan slid into the cab of Roland’s truck and shut the door.
“Your uncle can’t bear to see you go, honey,” she told B. J. “He wanted me to give you this.” She handed him a cigar box that said “Loshis” on it. The windshield wiper was swinging back and forth, making a hush-swish sound. “Better step on it, Roland. That train won’t wait for us.”
B. J. turned his head and watched the pink shack getting smaller through a wash of rain.
When they pulled up to the depot, everyone was there to see him off, close to a hundred of them, gathered under a forest of black umbrellas. B. J.’s glasses had fogged up. He couldn’t see all of their faces, but he recognized King Benoit and Ms. Mary and Father Jacques at the front of the crowd. Gracie Champlain was there too, with her whole family, and there was Dudley, without an umbrella, getting sopping wet.
“You gotta hurry, honey, they’re boarding already,” said Nan, and before he knew it he was rushing by them, and Roland was squeezing his shoulder and wishing him luck, and Nan was telling him to be careful, and they were pushing him up, and the doors closed behind him and he had to find a seat.
“Two cars back, nigger!” a man barked.
The train began to roll, and he could see them through the window, one big black mass raising up its hands. They didn’t know what he would find when he got there.
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