from Black Preacher at the Family Reunion

Greg Bottoms Click to

bottomsGreg Bottoms is the author of a memoir, Angelhead, an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American outsider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013) as well as three genre-defying collections of autobiographical prose — Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008) and Swallowing the Past (2011).  His work can also be found in Oxford American, Agni and numerous other venues.  He is the essays editor of Texas Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.

New Shoes

You’re on your hands and knees, looking side to side beneath the tattered bus seats.  In front of you are new white tennis shoes, size three or four, and above them frayed and yellowed socks, and above the socks a young girl’s thin brown ankles, like chocolate-painted bones.

What else?

Other brown ankles, other shoes, but none are this close, this bright, this white, this new.  Metal bus-seat poles bolted to the black, filthy floor line up into the near distance like centipede legs.  But why are you on the ground?

Follow the images.  Remember.

You’re five, riding in the front of the school bus your mother drives every day through the Pine Chapel projects of Hampton, Virginia.  She is in her late-20s, pregnant with your brother.  The two of you are the only white people on the bus.  Behind you are about 50 of the poorest African-American kids in the state, kindergartners to eighth graders.  Each weekday morning and afternoon in 1976, only a few years after the last desegregation lawsuits, you sit by yourself in the first loose, spring-creaking chair behind Mom’s driver’s seat, legs dangling, listening to the talk, the laughing, and the cursing of the black kids.  You now know the words motherfucker fuck you bitch dick coochie ass faggot shit.  Language is a marvel (coochie?)—almost a solid material for building thought, memory, fantasy.  Most of your life is in your own head.  Such a good boy, people say.  So quiet.  But your mind is a rapids, anything but quiet.

Perhaps you’ve dropped something—a coin, one of the plastic toy figures of Batman or Aquaman you always had with you then, something—and now you’re on your hands and knees to pick it up.  You can see all the way to the teal, steel back of the bus.  But it’s these shoes that draw your eye.  Cheap, white, new.

Shoes have meaning.  Shoes tell a story.  Not how you think, of course, not at five, but something you seem to know because the teenage boys in your neighborhood, a white working-class neighborhood with poor black neighborhoods nearby, wear blue Puma Clydes, or bright white Adidas Stan Smiths with three green stripes, or blue and yellow Nike running shoes with tan knobby soles.  They parade these shoes, they runway-fashion-stroll them; every day you can see the boys belong together because of their shoes.  There are other things that connect them together as well—medium-length, feathered hair parted in the middle, T-shirts screen-printed with words like “Cheap Trick” and “Foghat” and “Jethro Tull” and “Pink Floyd,” their white skin.  But it’s the shoes that really mean, or so it seems, and it is cheap canvas shoes, what the teenage boys call “butter cookies,” that can truly damn a person, subject them to the cruelest words, bullying.  Your mother drives a school bus.  Your father works at the nearby shipyard.  Money is tight, your family never has enough (none of which do you know or understand), but you wear Nikes and if you didn’t you would be trash like your neighbors the Heeleys.

So when you get up from the bus floor—maybe with a plastic Batman in hand—you look back at the girl, at her face, then the older boy sitting beside her—her brother, you think—then the girl again.  She does not look you in the eye.  Her glasses are thick, plastic, cheap; her downcast eyes are magnified like a fish in the corner of an aquarium, like a squeezed balloon.  She is small, skinny.  About your age—five, maybe six.  Not clean.  Her black hair is coarse, wiry almost, parted in the middle with two tight braids drooping like weak stalks from the root of her head.  You would like her to look at you.  For the first time on this bus, you have something to say to one of the black kids.

Before you got your Nikes, before your mother relented to your begging for Nikes, the older boys in your neighborhood laughed at your shoes every day when they walked by you as you rode your yellow, plastic skateboard with the translucent, rubber-cement-colored wheels on your short driveway and the thump-tump uneven sidewalk in front of your house.  They said your mother drove the nig taxi.  They said, Check tike’s kicks or nice moccasins ke-mo-therapy then laughed, pushing each other.  You didn’t understand exactly what they meant, or why your white canvas shoes from K-Mart that your grandmother bought you were such a joke, but you felt the sting from their comments, their laughing, went inside.  No more skateboarding? said Mom.  Nah, you said, then sat on the flowered couch in the small, dim living room in the silence and the tea-stain light and the boredom (time felt so big at five, like an ocean to swim through, like having your eyes open while you slept, the hours a dark, unmoving sludge).  You looked down at your shoes.  Such crap crap shoes.  Butter cookies.  But then Christmas came and you wanted only one thing and you got your blue Nikes.

You’re leaning over the back of your seat now.  You and the black girl and her brother are face-to-face inside the roaring tunnel of the bus.  Did you have meanness in you as a kid?  Hard to know, really, since the child’s mind is the adult’s story, a thing you’re making on this laptop, a fiction we tell ourselves to grant some meaning to our pasts, but you remembered the older white boys laughing at your shoes, celebrating a new thing wrong with you.  A hurt thing wants to hurt.  That much you know.

You say only two words: nice shoes; then you laugh, your best neighborhood cool-kid derisive—like spitting on those embarrassing, no-brand shoes.

The boy beside the girl, her brother, is the “bus monitor.”  He helps your mother keep control of the violence, which hums in the air some days.  (Your father says the poor will fight to the finish over scraps, can be murderous over wounded pride, will steal useless things because useless things are still one notch up from nothing at all, and he does not like that your mother cannot find a better, safer job—the grocery store, helping out at a pre-school—that his low salary reduces freedom, forces your parents to make choices they don’t want to make.)  The girl’s brother is like your mother’s fight cop.  Mom says he is a gentleman, going somewhere.  “No fights” is her one remaining rule.  Wanna fight? he says to kids, standing up, eyeing them.  Get off the bus in the projects and kill each other.  Nobody cares.  Police don’t care.  Save their ass a bullet.  But no fighting on the white lady’s bus.

He scowls at your laugh now.  You think he must share your opinion of the girl’s shoes—you assume everyone understands that she should be wearing Nikes, not those sad $2.99 K-Mart specials.  This is inviolable logic.  You learned it from the white boys in your neighborhood.

He doesn’t laugh.  Instead he leans in toward you.  You look at him, listen.  You’re still smiling.  He helps your mother.  He can be trusted.  He looks at his younger sister, who sits with him every day, her new shoes, which still smell of pressed rubber and canvas, of the caved-in box they came over in from China.  Quietly, so your mother cannot hear, he says, What are you laughin at you little white motherfucker?  I bought them damn shoes.  I’d take off one and beat your little ass with it, bitch, your momma won’t sitting right there.  Turn the fuck around ‘fore I slap your face.

Little electric shock goes right through your forehead and all around inside your skull, staticking every thought.  You turn around.  Heart a marcher’s snare.  You hold your picked-up toy, Batman or Aquaman, tight in both hands.  You cross and re-cross your shins, as if to hide your expensive shoes.  Too scared to even cry.

At home you lie sock-footed on the flowered couch and watch Tom and Jerry torture and terrorize each other.  You do not mention to your mother what happened on the bus, what the girl’s brother said.  The next day, walking out of the slappy screen door of the house for the morning route, she asks why you aren’t wearing your new shoes.

Confederate Flag in the Grocery Store

The back of a grocery store.  This is now.  In New England.  Florescent lights glaring in the glass doors of the refrigerated foods section, making yellow window eyes that follow you as you browse.  Price tags.  Special! Special!  Labels of every color facing you.  Pink, green, orange.  Red, blue, red, blue, red, blue.  And your mind, your memory, suddenly goes back, and back, and back.  And this now loses its grip altogether and becomes Virginia decades ago.

You are looking at a young man named Jimmy, a crabber from Hampton.  He is bow-legged, in jeans and a red flannel shirt and a filthy, tattered-billed baseball cap.  You look down at his white work boots, the creek-mud splotches like coffee stains, back up to his sun-toughened, wind-cracked face.  He is 20, 21.  He looks 35.

He’s buying dinner maybe.  No, he’s buying, more precisely—some clarity now—milk and bread, and your memory—or the raw images from your memory (glare of light, rainbow of labels, squeak of boots on white, tile floors)—shifts from the back of the grocery store, the dairy section, where he looks at you and then turns quickly away, embarrassed—but you don’t know why yet—to the front of the store, the checkout line, where he is paying for his groceries with food stamps, which surprises you because you think, as a teen (you must have been a late teen, maybe 18), that local fishermen and crabbers make a decent living.  (At this moment in life, in the quick sliding of time, you think many wrong things.)

You know Jimmy from little league sports, though he’s two or three years older than you.  Embarrassment speeds his heart, and the skin on his neck pinks as you intrude on this transaction of food and food stamps when you stand too close in the line behind him.  Like getting behind someone buying tampons or hemorrhoid cream or flavored condoms at the drug store.  Pretend you haven’t noticed.  Look at the magazines in the cheap metal racks:  An actor’s secret battle with pain medication; cellulite solutions; 7 tricks to please your man; lose weight having sex—and look great!

Jimmy pulls a patch of a Confederate flag from the back pocket of his jeans.  It’s about the size of a playing card, edges frayed, but still bright red and blue, and he looks at you and smiles and says hey man long time and then says you should put the patch on your jean jacket if you want to let everyone know how you feel about blacks, though that is not how he says it, of course, that is not how you will really remember it, of course.

Here is a young white man, still with the gestures and bashfulness of an insecure boy, using the Confederate flag to leap over the fact that he is working poor and needs government help to eat, that he feels different in the bright lights of the store when he holds the food stamps, when he passes them to the cashier, inferior and weak and hopeless.

You won’t remember how you reacted to Jimmy’s offer of the Confederate flag patch, whether you took it or not—you probably did; caught off guard catching someone off guard, the hesitance and feeling-whiplash of that kind of moment, why wouldn’t you have?—but you will remember his blushing face, remember how desperate he looked, wide-eyed, caught up and contained in his shame, wanting more than anything not to be poor, to be better than somebody, anybody.  The last, defensive thought of so many of the poor white Southerners from your boyhood:  At least I’m not black.

Your son—back in the now now, back in New England, which feels like a different country—says, ready Dad? and you say yep and, milk jug in hand, leave the memory in the back of the grocery store, reminding yourself to write it down later.

Bullet Hole

Looks like your asshole.

Your neighbor Rodney Dean said that—you think—or maybe his older brother Kip.  One of them.  But you remember staring into the bullet hole in the car’s driver’s side door, six inches below the window, a few inches forward from the door handle.   Rodney is thirteen.  Kip is eighteen, and this is his metal-flake blue Chevelle in front of you, in the Dean’s cracked, weed-sprouting driveway.   You’re seven.  Nineteen seventy-seven.  Holiday season.   (Lay down the facts without literary fuss—make it pretty later, if you must.)  You’ve come next door to hear the story of the shooting, because this house, this family, this junk-strewn yard—storyville.

For instance:
The earth was made by God in six days about six-thousand years ago.
Cutting your hair if you are a woman is a sin.
Showing your legs if you are a woman is a sin.
Wearing pants instead of long dresses or skirts if you are a woman is a sin.
Talking to a strange boy if you are a girl is a sin.
Men can punish women, in public, physically, for their sins.

You have seen the father, the snaggle-toothed, wrinkled mechanic, the amateur Southern Baptist evangelist, beat each of his four daughters with a belt or a switch in the front yard (his four boys, too, but that seems less odd to you because you yourself have been beaten with a belt until you couldn’t breathe).  We live in God’s dominion, according to Mr. Dean, and the chosen shall lead us into being a fully Christian nation, not one filled with communists and dope fiends and queers.  Also according to Mr. Dean:  The black kids in the neighborhoods nearby are like roving platoons from an enemy army.  Whites made this country.  It is a white, Christian country.  Whites must take it back.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Looks like your asshole.  All wide and blown-in like that, you hell-fire faggot.

So now you get the story (there you are, the listener, hands in dungaree pockets) but have a hard time following the plot.  Act 1:  Rachel, the middle girl, fourteen, went into the Pine Chapel projects by herself because she had a friend from her class who lived there.  The friend was black.  She knows not to go there.  She goes anyway.  The friend had an older brother and some cousins and maybe strangers living with her and her grandma.  Someone on the school bus told Rodney, the younger brother, that Rachel had a black boyfriend.  Act 2:  Big joke on the bus, repeated over and over:  white girl, black boy.  Rodney told Kip but didn’t tell his dad.  Act 3:  Dusk came.  A cold night.  Kip went out in his Chevelle, picked up some friends—two, three; you don’t clearly hear this part—and they drove through Pine Chapel with bats and crowbars.  They drank beer after beer and got braver.  Black teens on the corners watched them roll by once but not again.  Second time Kip’s friend started yelling.  Another of Kip’s friends flashed a pistol.  Then from the other side of the road a loud bang, driver’s-side door pinging like a shot beer can.  Right then a gang of twenty, thirty project kids come running around the corner, shadows under the street lights, and Kip and the boys are burning rubber and back home in a few minutes.  Act 4:  Rachel arrives home, an hour late and after lying about where she went.  No boyfriend, just a friend, a girl, yes a black friend but we had a project to do.  I promise.  I promise.

Now is Act 5:  You think you understand.  Maybe you don’t.  Kip and Rodney are still talking, half joking, half fighting.  You watch.  The thing you must do in life, you understand, is pay attention, follow along.

Here is Mr. Dean with his pepper crew cut, his missing teeth, his gray, cracked fingers, pushing his daughter Rachel by the neck out into the yard, to the car.  You see that? he shouts.  See that?  She says, Yes, she does, she does see it, but she only went to do a project for school and Kip didn’t have to come after her and drive around like that with music blaring and his friends shouting out the windows at the people who live there.

Mr. Dean slaps the back of Rachel’s head and her never-cut hair whips like a clothes-lined dress in the wind.  All because of your evil ways, Mr. Dean says, pointing at the bullet hole with one hand and vice-gripping her neck with the other.  Stay with your kind, he repeats as the swinging starts up again.  You and Kip and Rodney look on as their father beats Rachel with the force of worship.