My uncle Luther runs a website called Monkeys Back to Africa.Org. “It’s not a hate site,” Luther’s always quick to point out, “It’s an opinion site. We let the other side give their opinions too.” The site’s grown a bit in popularity over the last year. M.B.T.A. has added several new features like a kid’s page and an online forum. Now, members can chat about blacks who are lazy, friends who have been raped by blacks, or how to create the perfect black-free family vacation. In addition, Luther publishes a member-based monthly newsletter called The Thoroughbred (“your guide to purity”). The Thoroughbred will accept reader’s submissions for recipes and original poetry along with their editorials, provided that they are typed and well punctuated. “By next summer,” Luther promises, “we’ll have keychains and beachwear.” Luther started the website with money he made selling dirty bumper stickers at the county swap meets. “The bumper sticker business is a great business,” Luther told me once, “but at the end of the day, what have you really accomplished?” So my uncle decided to give a voice to the voiceless as well as hock a bunch of knives promised to be “just like the one that OJ killed Nicole with.”
As you might imagine, Luther is a busy man. But today, when I go to see him, he’s still in his bathrobe at 5:30 in the afternoon. He ushers me into the two-bedroom apartment and I immediately get clobbered by the smell of old newspapers. Luther subscribes to at least a dozen newspapers, including two from Australia. He says he doesn’t have enough time to read them, but he never throws anything away, and the apartment is stacked ceiling high with mushy editions of unfinished crosswords and inaccurate weather forecasts. Today’s copy of our local paper, the Crofton Neighbor and Statesman, lies neatly on the coffee table as we pass by.
I never have liked coming here. It’s not just all the weird white power furniture. My uncle bothers me too. Luther always has that impatient look of a man who would much rather kick your ass than learn your first name. He wears a salt-and-pepper mustache and a thick red set of glasses that are constantly in need of duct-tape. It occurs to me that in my nineteen years of life I have never seen my uncle very happy. It’s much the same way many people have never witnessed their mailman or their barber in tears. Luther has one of those faces that fits in perfectly with our daily culture of disappointment.
We overloaded the server last night,” he tells me opening the refrigerator and pulling back a banana. “I’ve been on the phone with the fucking I.T. guy since eight o’clock this morning.” He steps over a shoe and opens the cabinet.” How much are you wanting anyway?” he calls back.
“Eighty,” I say, trying to sound casual.
“Eighty? Big weekend?” Then he stops. Something slow grows over his face. “This is just for you right? I’m not in the favor business you know.”
“Sure. Me and Brandy Sizemore. I’m taking her out this weekend, and, uh she wanted to get some. For the game. That’s why I need extra.” There’s a very special moment when a lie is no longer believed by its recipient or its narrator. It stops really being a lie then and becomes more of a showpiece. “Look” it says, “look how much attention I get. Someone must love me.”
Luther doesn’t say anything. Instead, he just plucks four baggies out from an empty cereal box. The crank looks like cornstarch here in my uncle’s kitchen. I hear myself breathe and swallow. Finally, he speaks while he counts my money. “If it wasn’t for the blessed memory of my brother, I wouldn’t even think about doing a damn thing for certain people.” The words “certain people” catch the back of my neck. I’m a fish writhing in icy water. He shakes the banana for emphasis and my eyes immediately fall to the floor. I’m studying the linoleum, hoping it will swallow me whole. Luther looks at me like I’m a dead possum rotting inside his oven. Funny thing I guess. Most people probably couldn’t feel shame in the presence of a grown man whose wearing only Old Spice and his WAKE UP WHITE PEOPLE pajamas.
“She’s sick Luther. She’s sick and she’s not getting much better.” As soon as the words are gone I feel an itching in my throat. My uncle’s face changes a little but it doesn’t soften.
“Well, I’m real sorry about her luck then. But it don’t change a goddamn thing. Now go boy. I got shit I gotta get took care of.” I slip the baggies in my coat pocket and I’m outside before Luther starts to throw things.
The purple highway sign outside of town reads:
Welcome To Crofton
Pop. 2400 friendly people (plus one grouch)
A few years ago, when the high school caught on fire, the mayor and town hall started a big fundraising drive to pay for the damage. The slogan was “Crofton, the place to be from.” The Mom’s from the Methodist church baked dry raisin cookies and sold them at the drive-in. Two miles down, their daughters waved you down for a $5 car wash. I remember my brother would sneak behind the girls and spray them with a stray hose. They’d scream when the water hit their T-shirts and the hair dye would run down their necks. My brother left town three weeks after our father died. He’s in Memphis now, delivering food and trying to start a band. Casey was a badass guitar player, probably better than anybody that ever came from Crofton. His bands never worked out, though. Either they couldn’t keep up with him, or they refused to work, or maybe nobody ever had a ride to practice. Sometimes, when he first left, Mom and I would get a letter from him or a picture of some new girl he was with. We don’t get those letters anymore. A week ago his name showed up on our caller ID, but no one bothered to answer the phone. We just watched TV till the ringing stopped. I got hired on at the peanut butter factory after I turned eighteen. Mom told me if I stayed there a year, I could take Dad’s old spot as a machinist. I was taking courses three nights a week, and saving money for my own place. But she got sick a few months ago, and now Crofton seems a lot smaller.
I find my car in the parking lot behind Luther’s building. I drive an ‘85 Taurus that was a Christmas gift from my father. The engine had 130,000 miles on it when he bought the car, but he told me that “Tauruses will run forever, Dallas, as long as you keep the fluids level.” So far he’s been right. While I pull out of the complex I notice someone has spray-painted JEFF LOVES SARA underneath the NO SOLICITING sign. Funny, I don’t think that was there the last time I visited my uncle. I take the back roads and drive slow. Mom and Luther never really got along, even before Dad died. I’m not real sure about their reasons. After he passed, though, it got real nasty. Some of it’s the racial stuff. When I was nine Luther told me that if a black person was good in this life, God would reward him in the next by allowing him to guard our lawns against evil spirits. I went home that night and asked my mom if this was true. Ten minutes later she was at his front door screaming she was gonna have him killed. I can remember sitting in the back seat of our worthless brown Plymouth and watching Mom’s fist damn near split the front door. It must have been ten o’clock at night by then but Mom was hollering like the building had caught fire. “My son is not going to be another asshole redneck, Luther! He ain’t gonna be like you or no one else from around here. Do you hear me? You fucking white trash faggott! Do you hear me?”
On the other hand, Luther’s about the only consistent dealer we’ve got in Crofton. I’ve only been going through him lately because my normal guy caught a charge last month. I don’t talk to many people about Luther. I’m not ashamed of my family. I want to be real clear on that. It’s just that Luther is the kind of person everybody has an opinion about. And, lately, other people’s opinions don’t do shit except blow my buzz. Besides, everyone knows the truth about my uncle. He doesn’t really hate black people. In fact one of his meth suppliers is a black guy from Louisville named Wayne. My mom says that the whole website thing is just his way of still trying to impress my father. Not that Dad was any kind of giant racist himself. I remember hearing my Dad and Luther telling the occasional nigger joke in the garage, but that was about as far as it went. I don’t even really think Dad thought they were funny. Maybe there’s just a point in your life when you decide its important to be about something, even if its something you don’t care about either way. I push the Taurus to about 30 and smell the cold air out the window.
I turn left on Hayward and continue across town. On the radio there’s a woman singing about how “her heart is as free as the ocean waves.” Crofton has two Non-Christian radio stations: an AM talk and news station or, my pick, WKTZ with” your choice in the contemporary sounds of today.” During the summer, we sometimes get broadcasts of Reds games, but they come in fuzzy. When I pass the SuperAmerica, a green and tan Sheriff car pushes out behind me, and my fingers go slack along the wheel. Hayward Avenue is the only part of the drive along a main road. There’s no way to avoid it unless you want to sacrifice twenty minutes backtracking. Right now, however, twenty minutes backtracking doesn’t sound so bad at all. Not when the alternative involves explaining four bags of very average tweak to one of Doyle counties’ finest. The baggies suddenly feel very heavy in my coat pocket. I have an instant memory of my Uncle Luther insisting that I never carry any product on my body while I’m driving. “That way if they find the dope in the car, you can always say it’s not yours.” I try to remember if one of my taillights needed replacing. Maybe my rear tires were a little flat. Cops really don’t need much to pull you over. I try to pluck the packages from my coat and maybe slide them under the passenger seat. They’re buried under gum wrappers and spare change though, and before I even touch the baggies I feel the Taurus slipping out from under me. I put both hands on the steering wheel and try not to look too hard in my mirror. It’s 6:15 now, and people should be coming home from work or doing their weekend shopping, but instead Hayward is as empty as an old cardboard box. In my brain, someone is writing the words POSSESSION WITH INTENT with a cast iron torch. I try to remember lemonade or baseball or pussy; anything that might ratchet down my heartbeat. Outside, the wind grabs handfuls of dust from the street, and blows it back towards the November sun.
The cop and I are the only cars in sight. For a few moments we look like the world’s smallest parade heading east towards the highway. After a minute goes by, I make a right turn on Douglas Street, and in my rearview mirror I see that the cop does the same thing. The wind spits through the car and settles on my neck. On the radio, a voice reminds everyone that Thanksgiving is just around the corner and “that means the savings are here at FoodWorld.” I pull the car into the parking lot behind the Taylor Family Barber Shop and wait. I figure that there’s no sense in postponing the inevitable. I close my eyes and try to prepare my game face. Then, the sheriff’s car flutters down Douglas without as much as nod in my direction. I think about how disgusted I am with myself for being afraid. I think about how much I want to go home and get high. For some reason, I even think about the Taylor Family Barber Shop where I’m parked. Mom would take Casey and me here on the second Sunday of every month. If we behaved while the men buzzed and snipped our hair, Mom would buy us one can of pop apiece. It’s been a while now, but I seem to remember almost always taking a red pop. Cherry Coke I think it was.
My mom stopped returning the doctor’s calls about a week ago. They had shown her the x-rays that made her kidneys look like charcoal briquettes. “We need to act soon,” they told her. They had specialists in Chicago for advanced Hep C. It was treatable they said—dangerous, but very treatable. Mom locked herself in her room for two days. I could hear old Eagles or Bonnie Raitt albums playing through the wood door. Once, I thought I’d heard her whispering to someone over the phone. My mother always said she looked like a potato because of her short stubby arms and legs. When she came out from the room, the tears had left mom’s face with that same peeled and boiled look of old skin. “I’ll go to Chicago next month,” she said. “Right now, there’s something I need you to do for me.”
I’ve been making these runs for about ten days now. You’d think I’d feel guilty or pissed or something. Mostly, I feel tired. Tired and numb and maybe just a little useful. Part of me just enjoys feeling anything again. Today, when I return to the apartment, I see how excited she is to see me. She’s like a little puppy, clapping her hands when I put the baggies on the table.
A year ago we moved out of the house me and Casey were raised in. I was only getting thirty hours a week and mom’s check barely covered the utilities. We’re in a duplex now out by the baseball diamond. It’s not so bad I guess. Our neighbors take out their trash and go to bed early. At night I can hear their kids doing the dishes or arguing over the TV. I worry sometimes that they can smell the tweak, but so far they’ve never said anything. Mom told me she stopped smoking speed after she got pregnant with Casey. Dad made her quit and “got all preacher” on her. Every once in a while, though, she told me she could smell it on his breath. “We would ride out to Lock creek on the weekends and get high, or drink until the sun went down. Your dad would set up that tent we kept in the garage and we’d just smoke and talk all night. Sometimes he’d pull out his guitar and we’d sing. I wasn’t a bad singer, you know. People would tell me that all the time.” She’ll give me a look then, to see if she could keep going. Both of us are scared about what she might say next. No one wants to remember everything. But, at least for a week, there have been voices in our house. Human fucking voices! I’m hearing some kind of noise where I live that’s not the TV or the toilet flushing. And it’s worth it, believe me. It’s worth every bit.
“How was work, Dallas?”
“They’ve got me stacking this week. I can’t hardly feel my fingers.”
She’s shoveling the crank into a glass bowl pipe with a green straw. She studies the bottom of the pipe and taps it with her pinkie. Sometimes I don’t really believe she quit for twenty years, not when I see the way she holds the pipe. It’s too natural. “Luther’s a son of a bitch, but he does give decent deals,” she says and extends the flame to the bottom of the bowl. She lets the pipe cool while the plume starts to coil around the room. “I mean shit,” she says tapping the baggie, “for twenty bucks, you can’t beat that.”
“Just this month,” I say. “Right ma, just this month and then we’re driving to Chicago. I’ve already seen a guy about getting the Taurus winterized.”
She nods and takes a drag. The first hit is always the worst and she’s
barely able to get the smoke into her lungs before she starts choking and spitting. She coughs hard and I can hear that the blood is on its way.
“Gone song,” she says between wheezes.
“Come again, ma?” I reply.
“Good son,” she whispers as she passes me the pipe. “I said you’re a good
An hour or so later, I’m sitting on the couch watching the TV. The speed’s got me buzzed but not too bad. I can hear mom running the vacuum cleaner in her bedroom. I look at the pictures around our living room and try to plan my weekend. There’s a picture of my brother when he was seven in a blue baseball jersey. There’s another hanging above the dining room table, of my parents. It’s old, probably taken when they were in their late twenties. They’re holding each other and smiling. Dad looks big and a little sunburned. Mom’s grinning and showing all her teeth. In their eyes, you can see how surprised they are to be feeling this way. It’s almost as if they don’t quite know what to do with each other. On TV, there’s a comedy on and the laugh track is exploding. For some reason I think about that graffiti I saw in Luther’s complex.
JEFF LOVES SARA
My mind pictures two snaggle-toothed Crofton teenagers having sex in her father’s van. The boy’s wearing glasses and a Metallica t-shirt. The girl needs braces bad. She has on way too much hair spray. They’re naked and stinking and after they’re done they hold each other. Then they say “I love you,” but what they really mean is “I want to love you. I want to love you so much.”
The TV show’s over and there’s a commercial on for dandruff shampoo. Outside I hear the car doors slamming and a couple of kids bouncing a ball along the sidewalk. The ball needs air because it makes a squishy sound against the pavement. It keeps bouncing though, steady as a hammer. Before I even realize it, I’m tapping my foot along to the beat.