Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Serial Novel

Isn’t it funny how things trigger a memory sometimes? Other times, it’s just not funny at all.
. . . . . . . .

I rumbled along the highway, my motorcycle belting out its deep, warning staccato that growls at the cagers like a dog letting you know that you’re too close to his food bowl. Summer heat had begun to press down on us with its thick, oppressive weight, and even in the predawn twilight, you’d get sticky and damp, just waiting for the engine to warm up and even out before hitting the road. It was one of those long, dry spells we get towards the end of July, when it hadn’t been hot long enough to get used to the heat and it was way too early to start dreaming of cooler weather. Everyone’s lawns were browning like rolls in the oven, and slab-foundations cracked as the Texas clay underneath shrunk and retreated in search of moisture. “All the water’s in the air, and none of it in the ground,” the weathermen in their uniform-like tweed suits and red bowties would say, grinning their false smiles and wishing they were anchorman material.

“No kidding,” I thought, dripping in spite of the rush of wind pushing past me at highway speed. When the roads haven’t seen rain in such a long time as this, the grit and dust that settles on the on shoulders come creeping back into the lanes, sucked onto the roadways by the speeding cars and spun into whirling blurs by the massive eighteen-wheelers, hauling their stinking loads of staring cattle to the slaughterhouse. For me, it meant a constant barrage of stinging sand, like little needles piercing at any exposed flesh they can find. Today, it was worse than usual, as though the grit were some maniacal tattoo artist looking to give me a full-coverage facial of ink.

In spite of the constant hail of debris, or perhaps because the abrasion had heightened my sensitivity, I could detect an occasional splatter of moisture - faint and near-subliminal in its impact on my exposed skin. I looked up. No clouds in the sky. No birds overhead. Certainly nothing to justify the mysterious moisture. Resuming my focus ahead, I unfortunately found the source. Two cars ahead, rocking and jostling its labored way along, was one of those large garbage-scow trucks with the mechanical compactor on the back. It was rusty, very full - and worst of all – dripping something.

My mind reeled to consider all the possible fluids that could be oozing from the back of a truck overflowing with festering refuse, and in the way a scent or a song can evoke a memory, I found myself unwillingly transported back to the days of my youth down in New Orleans.

I was raised among the genteel society of the Old South on the trailing edge of a dying age when women were ladies and children were seen and not heard. We were taught to sit quietly with our hands in our laps, to pretend to be interested in the stories of Aunt Edna’s endless litany of surgeries – or whatever it was the adults discussed, and to only reluctantly accept whatever sweets might be offered to us and to never ask for seconds. It was still an era in which women “powdered their noses,” and men would quietly excuse themselves from company to take care of unmentionable body functions. Politics were never discussed, as it all was just a “dirty business,” and I suspect more than one of my older relations was still bitter about the North winning the civil war, even though that was over a hundred years ago.

In was in the hushed and rarified air of this atmosphere in which I first learned of my Uncle George. I never knew exactly how we were supposed to be related. Questions about him were quickly shifted away to other topics or ignored altogether. Uncle George was never seen in anything other than his black silk suit - one mother-of-pearl button fastened against his girth that looked nothing so much as if there were a basketball hidden in his shirt. “It’s a goiter,” he would laugh, referring to the hard, peculiar roundness of his mid-section, in sharp contrast to his otherwise-unremarkable arms and legs. But even as a child I knew it had more to do with his love of his ever-present bottle of Jax beer than a lack of iodine in his diet. No one had to tell me that Uncle George was somehow an embarrassment to the rest of the family. The way most of my relations would all stiffen and hiss their disapproval through tight mouths when he arrived at family functions was more than enough for even a young child to know that there was something clearly unwelcome in this man. My parents strictly forbade me to speak to him at these functions, lest it be mistaken as in invite to come and socialize, and by extension bring some sort of unspoken shame on my parents. Whatever it was that tainted Uncle George in the minds of my relatives, they must have thought it was something could be rubbed off on them, like a greasy stain in your good, Sunday shirt.

As most of the family gatherings were mind-numbingly dull affairs and as a child I couldn’t contribute to any of the conversations, I was often left to quietly entertain myself, and made a point of studying my mysterious relative. I noticed, for instance, that in spite of all the palpable tension that seemed to follow him into a room, carried swirling along with his heavy scent of Aqua Velva and cigars, he either remained oblivious of the obvious discomfort of the others or was very good at pretending not to notice. He presented himself as a very jovial man, quick to laugh at the smallest joke – usually his own, and at the expense of the nearest family member, who would smile tightly and obediently while at the same time looking around to see if anyone was watching the interchange. Another thing I noticed: although people would go out of their way to avoid any contact with Uncle George, they would be excruciatingly polite and almost unctuous in their replies to him, should they unhappily find themselves the target of his attention. It was as though he were some foreign royalty come to visit a little backwater town, where the residents would make comically exaggerated attempts at acting courtly and worldly-wise, while at the same time finding it all terribly inconvenient. I watched as anyone, once cornered by my mysterious uncle, would agree to anything he asked, if only to keep him happy in the hopes that his attention would soon turn elsewhere. Once released, however, the unwilling relation would sigh resignedly, knowing that he or she was now marked for further conversation in the future, and that Uncle George would undoubtedly come to call again.

It was at the funeral of my paternal grandfather when my Uncle George’s attentions finally came to rest on me while I was acting as a greeter to the hundreds of relatives and friends who came to the evening visitation. I stood at the doorway of the viewing room, shifting uncomfortably in an ill-fitting suit that was quickly cobbled together for the occasion. I was wearing one of my father’s pale blue suit-jackets that was too broad in the shoulders and too short in the sleeves for my long, ropey arms. My pants were commandeered from my older brother’s collection of dress slacks and had been hurriedly hemmed too high, allowing my sagging socks to show above my scuffed and well-worn dress shoes. Everything was ill-fitting, but that was to be expected. I was in that awkward stage of a growth-spurt when I looked like an amateurish marionette, arms and legs all akimbo and disproportionate to my enormous hands and feet, which my mother would frequently tell me by way of consolation that I would eventually grow to fit. It was with those large paws that I would take each offered hand, hold it gently for a moment and as sincerely as I could still muster, thank each of the gathered as they shuffled past my assigned post on their way to the wake. I had long passed the point of paying much attention to the many hands that I mechanically shook, or the bodies attached to them, until one didn’t let go. It was a meaty and soft – obviously a hand that didn’t see too much manual labor. There were large gold-nugget rings of differing designs on each of the sausage-like fingers that were firmly clamped around my hand, as though there was some extra message they were trying to impart. That message, as it turned out, was in the form of a tightly-folded wad of money being pressed deeply into my cramped palm. At the other end of the crushing grip was my Uncle George, grinning toothily at me with sharply-focused eyes and his wide, loose mouth.

“You’d be little Mickey, now wouldn’t you,” he stated more than asked, eyes darting back and forth between my hand and my right jacket pocket until the message was clear. He released my hand slowly, never taking his eyes from mine as I pocketed the cash without looking to see how much it was. I stood there awkwardly, not really knowing what to say to the man who still fixed me with an intent gaze. To my parents, it was bad enough for my Uncle George to have to audacity to show up for the funeral, when he was clearly uninvited, but they would be unhinged if they knew I was speaking with him and apparently accepting some sort of a cash donation. “That’s just for you, Mickey,” he said, winking conspiratorially, “your folks don’t need to know.” He stood there surveying me in my mismatched and pitiful outfit, oblivious as always to the growing line of disapproving mourners in the queue behind him. “You might want to spend it on some clothes,” he added, chuckling at his own little joke.

To Be Continued ...


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I love the novel- Great writing (IMHO). I can not wait for the rest.

Rick (aka ShutrBkr@aol.com)

January 17, 2005  
Blogger HeadCheese said...

Thanks for the kind words and the visit. Tell your friends.

Admittedly, the above story is actually a (very) rough draft, but I really wanted to get something new up on the blog after such a lengthy hiatus. As time permits, I'll most likely do extensive editing to it as I work out the rest of the story.

January 19, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hola keith- laura of the melton clan here. Wanted to say the blog is great. I'll be sure to check back often for new posts. Read your post on hookahs and have to say that i've been hooked for several years. You should try The Velvet Hookah. It's a night club in Addison, they have after work happy hour specials and great tobacco. I buy mine there.

February 07, 2005  

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