some rural negro memories
just thoughts, chile
Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash
It’s Friday, and I am procrastinating on some rather important tasks. Just before 1PM, I got an important delivery. I had two copies of my birth certificate sent to me from Alabama because I left the copy I had in Iowa City. I’ve seen my birth certificate quite a few times lately. I’ve used it to get IDs and other forms of official documents. I’ve parsed the details of my birth and slotted them into astrology apps and websites that have probably sold my birth time and date to who knows how many secret softwares humming in the background of our incoming robot apocalypse. But every time I look at it, I find something new. Or, I am newly sensitive to some bit of information that previously didn’t matter much to me. I think that’s part of getting older. Your increasing sensitivity to the peculiar resonances of your own life and your decreasing sensitivity to other people’s bullshit.
The thing that stuck out to me this time was that my mother was twenty-two when I was born and that for her occupation, she put Housekeeper. Specifically at the Ramada Inn. This was not news to me, of course. My mother was a housekeeper for most of her life, excepting brief stints as a lineworker in a brake shoe plant and, toward the end of her working life before she went totally on disability, as an aide in an assistant care facility. But in her twenties, she worked at a road side motel. Some of the other women in my neighborhood and family would try, for a couple shifts at a time, working in the motel, cleaning. For summers or until they got bored with it. But my mom did it for a living.
She wiped up other people’s soap scum. She picked their left-behind crusty socks out of the sheets. She stripped the beds. She piled their damp, musty towels into hampers. She pushed her cart around the upper levels of the outside balconies, working her way down to the bottom floors. She wiped at the stains left on the shitty laminate consoles from beer, soda, water, piss. She vacuumed the floors and cleaned the windows. Each room the same but the imprint of the person left behind in the subtle variations of filth. She was a natural storyteller, my mother, by which I mostly mean, she was a liar. But I do sometimes wonder if, at first at least, she could discern what sort of lives had been lived in those rooms. But I know that kind of thinking is the particular pathology of writers and other people who go around making narratives and imagining false routes cut through the bright, stark plains daily life. My mother probably didn’t imagine anything like that. She wasn’t the “limn refuse for the particularities of the inner lives of others” type.
She probably dealt with the tedium the way I do. I imagine that this habit I have comes from her. This way of dealing with endless monotony. In that, I don’t turn toward wide swathes of the imaginary, but down into the comfort of finitide. When my mind wanders, I divide tasks into equal units. I think, this is five little blocks of ten minutes. Or, this is seventeen wipes. Or eight dishes. When I worked in a lab, I’d think, this is four rows of four tubes. Or, this is eight rows of eight tubes. Or, this is ten rows of twelve plates. Or ten samples of five varieties, taking five minutes each. This seems like just the opposite of a writer’s habit, and yet it’s the only way I’ve managed to write anything. Any time I try to turn to the great expanse of imagination, I simply do not know what to do. I mean, how does one take in the wholeness of time. Of story. Of narrative. How does one live if not in the segment. Anyway, I imagine I get this from her. The monotony. The way of chopping it up and knocking it down.
It wasn’t a good hotel. It was a motel. As in, beside the major road and across from a couple gas stations. Behind the motel, there was a row of pine trees. This part of Alabama was full of pine trees. Very little oak. They were beautiful, so rich and green. Falling back in a dark shroud, inscrutable. Around the hotel there was a fence. There was a pool on the ground level. My cousins would jump into it in the summer. That was our idea of summer vacation, going into work with my mom to swim in the pool. Her boss didn’t mind. He said it like, “I don’t mind. I like to see the kids play.” I sometimes wonder, what that was about. What communication was going on beneath the surface. Was it that things were slow? Was he just a genuinely nice man? Was he trying to get in good with the housekeepers, letting them bring their small broods of dark children to swim in the pool? He was Indian. It seems kind of odd now that we’re all very racial, looking back at it. This unlikely alliance of Indian hotel owners and their black housekeepers in rural Alabama. I don’t know how to begin to chop up those power dynamics. Just that my mom used to say that he was annoying but harmless. “He a funny little man,” she used to say.
I do know that one time one of the men who owned the hotels where she worked blocked her cart in the room and wouldn’t let her out. He tried to touch her. That’s what she said. Then, when she told him if he didn’t move, she’d run him down, he said, “No hard feelings, Mary.” She used to do his accent. Or, a really rude, possibly racist approximation of his accent. I remember being very afraid when she said that. But he didn’t try it on her again. Not that she said. But I do remember thinking, how can someone do that. How can someone be bad in that way? I would find out myself, later. Not much later.
The other night, after I finished my last newsletter, I was lying in bed thinking about my life. My past. I was up late. I couldn’t sleep. And it reminded me of how, when I was young, my mom would come home late from her shift at the brake shoe plant. And she’d sometimes wake me up. And we’d watch bad movies and eat bad food. And it was nice. I was remembering that stuff when another memory slipped out from under it.
Suddenly, I recalled this one time my mom got me up so that I could ride to the store with her. She had called a friend, I guess. A man. A drinking buddy of hers. And she wanted to go to the store to get more beer. It was winter. Cold. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but she insisted. So I got up and she put my coat on me and my sweatpants. And my little shoes. And she held my hand and we walked out to the car. She let me into the back seat and she got into the front. We drove to the store with her friend. And they were talking. Low. I couldn’t hear them. I was so sleepy. It was so warm. I looked out the window. We passed the trailer park. We pulled up at the gas station. She got out. Walked in the store. Got her beer. Came out. I was in the car with the man. He was muttering to himself. Kept saying stuff like, “Goddamn. Goddamn.” I was afraid. I was always afraid of men.
She got back into the car, and we drove home. And he said to me, “Go on in the house.” And she said, “Don’t tell him what to do.” And he said, “Get on. Grown folks talking.” And she said, “No the fuck we ain’t.” And he said, low, “Come on now.” And I knew what that tone of voice was. It made me feel very cold. And very afraid. Then we got out. And she slammed the door so hard the window shook.
The other night, when that memory came back to me, I realized something. She had gotten me up because she was afraid he would try something on her but he wouldn’t try something if she had me with her. It occurred me to that all those times she would get me up to ride with her places while the men drove us, she was using me to keep them at a distance. That they had maybe tried something on her once and she knew enough to not get caught alone again. It was like running flat into a pane of thick glass. Oh shit, I thought. Oh shit. Then, a lot of things lit up in my memory. All those little moments it had been me and mom and one of her friends. One of her drunk friends. All those little moments that had seemed like just boring adult stuff. It all had a subtext that I was not privy to.
It also occurred to me that she was deep in the throes of her drinking then. That she needed the booze so bad that she was willing to ride in a car with a man who knew she was desperate in order to get it. That in some ways, she was trading off their desperation for her in order to get what she wanted. And that I was a part of her calculation. A calculation that was running all the time in her mind because that’s how it is with addiction. That calculation never stops. It keeps going and going until it burns you down to the bare fibers. It was booze for a long time, and then the casinos went up in Alabama. And then it was gambling.
It wasn’t just my mom then. It was everyone. I will never get over just how sad I felt when I looked into my grandma’s eyes and realized that the casinos had swallowed her up too. It’s like a collective sickness that descends upon a people and chews them up. Or it’s like in those old French tales, how a mysterious vapor fills the air and suddenly the people are captive to their baser desires and needs. That’s how it was when the gambling came. Everyone had already been worn down by the drinking and the drugs and the hardness of life—by hunger, by fatigue, by working too hard for too little for too long, by great need. That’s how it was. All that needing had turned them dry and made them perfect for the burning.
My cousin brought it in with him. He won $10,000 at a casino on his first try, and just like that, everyone in my family and my neighborhood started going to the casino. They’d sit there for hours, the lights strobing while the ice melted in their cups. I stayed home with my grandpa, who was dying, because everyone else had gone out. Then they’d come back, with no money, mad. Hungover the next day, the invariable grayness of their hunger and their anger, filled the air. And my grandpa got up to light a fire in the heater to keep them warm, they who had spent the whole night gambling and who had walked into the parking lot, sweat sticking their shirts to their backs. How cold they must have felt. How feverish.
They all had it. That sickness. That lack. That want. That profound hunger. The light of God had gone out in them each, slowly, over the years. Snuffed out by irresolute faith and shitty circumstances, I’m sure. But it did something to me when I saw the light go out in my grandma. When I saw it be replaced by the gambling. When she was suddenly putting on her synthetic church wig and getting my cousins to drive her into the casino two or three times a week. When she made her slow progress up the stairs at night, Dateline on the TV. My grandpa in his chair, leg hiked up over the chair arm, watching the news or America’s Most Wanted or In the Heat of the Night. She’d come in and take off her wig and sit. And he’d say nothing. And then she got ready for bed and I went home in the dark and the cold.
But for most of my life, it wasn’t the gambling. It was the drinking. I grew up among drunks. I know their kind well. I think I have the drinking to thank for my being a writer. Or at least for my ability to read people. Sometimes, my friend tells me to stop using my weird mind powers on him and to let him have his secrets to himself for a little while. I think I must be very annoying to talk to sometimes. It’s like that bit in The Portrait of a Lady, when the narrator says of Madame Merle, “ On many of her interlocutors Madame Merle might have produced an irritating effect; it was disconcertingly difficult to surprise her.” I think, also, that I’m kind of like what Isabelle concludes about Merle:
[…] her nature had been too much overlaid by custom and her angles too much rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too useful, was too ripe and too final. […] Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any detachment or privacy, she existed only in her relations, direct or indirect, with her fellow mortals. One might wonder what commerce she could possibly hold with her own spirit.
When your parents are boozers, you get so used to reading the room, living reflexively. All that observing and reflecting planes down the surface of yourself until you’re all reflection. Pure mediation. You live for fear of the hard hand, the sudden turn in temper, the unpredictable mania or the depressive lows. This is not a new observation. This is not particularly witty or insightful. But it is true about my life that sometimes when I look inward, there is nothing there. The mirror is blank. Sometimes, when I try to commune with what’s inside of me, there is just silence. I feel myself when I have something to be against. Or for. When I am in relation with others, but even then, I am so deeply aware of the reflecting that I can’t make contact with myself. This, too, is probably from all of the traumatic childhood. All that time spent leaving my body in order to survive what was happening to me.
But in memory, I can feel everything about the night with the man in the car and my mom. I can feel the coldness of the glass. The tacky leather of the back seat. How the car smelled like cigarettes and beer. The way the car swayed on the road as we went, edging just a little to the outside. The sweep of the lights over the pavement and into the trees. The gravel under the wheels when we pulled into the bright gas station, and that sudden pulse of pain in the eyes when the lights shoot straight through the glass. And across the road, the old hotel with its soft yellow lights peering at us as if we had come home to it after a long time away.
I guess that’s enough procrastination. Have a great a weekend.