Spending our summers at the Babet house, as a teenager, you get to learn pretty quickly that nothing is as it seems. We'd wander, by day, around the property, gathering items and questions long lost. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim were strange relics of an ancient and pagan time, teaching us with a passive and watchful eye, of all we were to become. Flexing the raw muscles of our growing internal closeness, we boys spoke to Bonnie, and to each other, sometimes going hours, or days, without saying a single thing aloud.
There was always music, or singing in the main house. The smells of Betty, and fire, clung to everything. There was a permanent dampness in the air, much different from the usual way the Bayou mugs up. I didn't know it then, but that moist air was Clyde, learning to control his emotions. I often wondered what changes in the atmosphere were caused by my hormonal fluctuations at the time. Was the Earth an abnormal vibratory creature beneath the worn rubber soles of my brothers? Did they notice leaves changing inside a particular radius around me? I never asked. When the sun was high like that, the days stretching to meet our need to live forever, we never asked many questions.
Nightfall inevitably evoked a myriad of tension, and angst in us.
Every particularly strange week ended in spending the evening alone with Jim, getting high. I would always know it was time when he didn't eat dinner with us. He sneaked away, quietly. He had a kind of intent in his stride, smoke curling in a wake behind him as he took two steps at a time, ascending to his room. I asked to be excused from the table around half way through the meal, and Betty would slip me a long look that meant she knew what I was up to.
"Get on now, baby,” she'd finally say, and I'd be on my feet. She tapped her cheek with her finger, indicating I wasn't to indulge in whatever debauchery I had in mind without her blessing. I'd kiss her, and make my way up the stairs.
Sliding my thin frame through the crack in the door and into what became Jim's den on nights like these, I'd see him hunched over the altar, grinding, and mixing, or rolling and licking in the stale, oppressive envelopment. I would know that night's method of administration by what he was doing as I entered the room. Usually he was polishing his mortar, and pestle; Crushing opium, hashish, and peyote into a waif thin pallet to be patted with gentle fingers, to the bottom of silver, cordial sized cups, etched with a prayer. One for him, and one for me. He'd fill the cups with goat's milk, honey, lavender, and rim them with clove oil. He'd invite me to sit in the center of the room to imbibe the mixture, which normally just tasted like Jagermeister, or feces.
The once definite curbs of my vision dithered, pulsing. The first order of business was always to have a very logical conversation with myself regarding whether, or not to jilt all absoluteness, and accept chaos into my heart. The decisions made during this conversation were hopelessly virile, where the conclusions were curious. Exospheric, dreamlike sidewinders showing me old movies where every kiss between the leading couple was timed not to exceed five seconds of camera time. Pre-code slaughters on the silver screen, silver screaming a cut into my lips, hollowing the troposphere, and blackening any hope of return from this place. For many men, it was the loss of their virginity that made them a man. For me, it was the first night I spent in a room alone with Pestilence, one of four horsemen; my uncle.
Days became a glaring fight to endure toward September, which approached with a hush. Packing to return home was nightmarish. What part of that life amounted to anything even slightly measuring on the scale with which we were taught to weigh purpose? The music, maybe. Maybe.
I would turn to Brad, as the three of us watched our father pull into the unpaved drive, to retrieve us. We hadn't spoke aloud in over three weeks. I knew he had something important to tell me. Through sunglasses, and the Indian summer breeze, he said "There are two tons of lead pumped onto the world's cosmetic factory floors every year. How is that suppose to make me feel?" And we’d be gone in a whirl of dust. We'd be asleep thirty minutes into the drive, and sloughing real life, and readying ourselves for the cruel artifice we knew back home.
I’m the eldest of several children, and I knew from a young age my job as a son was one of protection, from the judgments of the world, and the punishments of my father.
My mother never cut her hair, or dyed it. Clyde is most like her, of all of us. She used to saturate the ends of her hair in a pinkish-white substance. She stored it in an opaque, white plastic tub; the packaging indicative of its primitive origin, which was likely our Aunt Betty's altar. As a boy, I liked reading the ingredients, because all the words sounded like a female to me, and looked that feminine way a woman writes. Camellia Sinesis, Fragaria, Ron Anejo. It smelled like strawberry. Can a girl understand what her smell does to a boy?
I believe it was an unspoken tradition that my parents had breakfast together, before any of us woke. We were all left to fend for ourselves for the first meal of the day, but food was never scarce. Clyde often took it upon himself, in later years, to make sure we were all fed in the morning. Lunchtimes were often a hectic event, all of us gathered in the kitchen. Most of us angry we were called inside, and begging, sweaty, and hyper, for more time in the yard; it required great skill to suffer. Dinner wasn't quite the same. We all sluggishly filed into the kitchen, and sat quietly, to be fed.
At 8 years old, Brad was 5, Clyde, 3, and Joshua had not yet been born. The lunchtime rush was on it's upswing then. In the mess our house had been in those days, our mother having less time to clean, the bottle of hair solution was often mistaken for the mayonnaise. One day, as we gathered around the table, our father began fixing sandwiches. His resentful mood at having to prepare food, us boys and our arguing easily lit his short fuse. Distracted, he spread some of the goop on a piece of bread. He must have smelled the lotion or noted it's wrong color, because he stopped and stared. He made a sound we all knew well; the breathy, amused punctuation of his distress. He shook his head, and then we all watched him throw the bread and the bottle across the room.
"Diana!" he screamed. The container had rolled, hit something and turned upright again. I thought if he saw it that way, unspilled and upright, he would be much angrier. He kept yelling for my mother, and so I took the opportunity to duck under the table and crawl to the tub to knock it over. When my mother ran into the room, she saw me on the ground. She must have thought he'd put me there, because she charged him. It was the only time she ever intervened in his punishments. He easily, and quickly, overpowered her. Before she could make a scene, he had her pulled away to the living room. l was so afraid, I couldn't move.
It was my mother that taught me to be a ghost for the woman I love. I live in that garden, always, Evelyn, where you are small and I am smelling strawberry and pushing things over to keep the anger away, and failing that, giving you a reason to stand up for yourself, and for me. Do you know I fail so often where you take control, and fight for us? You couldn't, no.