THE FIRST HOMECOMING
What I know of Uncle Charlie’s actions during this spell are pieced together from long conversations with Nadine and others who happened to see him passing this way and that. I can’t swear it but it’s the best I can do to keep my need to do the telling flowing when sometimes big holes in a story will mess up the smooth parts up ahead. This is how I think the tale of Uncle Chuck’s first homecoming might’ve gone.
The old Studebaker pulled away, Nadine remembers, kicking up dust and gravel, spewing dark gray smoke from the cracked muffler. Uncle Chuck heard the two cylinders that were in need of pistons and rings. Another one likely was in need of gaskets. He watched the car pull away and the old black man who’d given him a ride all the way from Tallahassee lift and wave his big hand out the window as he drove off. It was poor man’s car. But given two full days and some factory-fresh parts, Chuck thought he would be able to fix it. But the man was gone and he’d never caught his name.
It had been ten weeks, two days, three near arrests and countless bottles of cheap whiskey, cheaper hotels, and the cheapest excuse for a human he could ever come up for himself; all because he killed his niece on that sweet fall afternoon out on the lake.
And now Uncle Chuck had returned to the home of his youth, or at least part of it. He’d been running around the lower South since that afternoon when he’d stopped the truck with a grieving Johnny and his dead niece, Ruth in the back. They all knew she was dead though the accepting of it came slowly. There had been no dangerous rush to the hospital or the morgue or wherever Johnny was to drive them after he said his goodbyes and stroked her still-wet hair in the back of the truck. And even the warm October eve and the blanket they’d wrapped her in, couldn’t keep his niece’s body from moving toward a colder side of the world; at least the side that Chuck had put himself in.
For two and one half months he’d asked himself why he’d stopped and run out, just leaving the two of them there on the side of the road, abandoned, while he folded himself further into himself and then the thick underbrush where he’d run from his nightmares, sometimes a step ahead but mostly swallowed in their night throats. Chuck had never run from anything. Was it long overdue guilt, fear, a chaos in his mind unwrapping itself at a time when he should’ve been cinching down the straps of courage? He didn’t think it was any of these. Chuck had always gained his strength in family; his ability to fight the good fight had always come from the women he’d raised and was raised by. Now, he’d committed the unconscionable. And it had reduced his power source by one half.
After a month on the road, he’d decided that he had slipped into some skin of an animal he’d never met. After two months, he knew that he’d forfeited membership in anything called integrity, and just the week before it dawned on him that whatever conclusion he’d come to about that private transaction with himself, it would forever be an intangible and unreachable brass ring of understanding. He’d made a mistake. And he’d spend the rest of his days trying to somehow unmake it.
There were no thoughts about how he might’ve stayed closer to shore in that neat little mahogany and teak skiff; the one he’d acquired day-use to in a game of cards. Just think, he’d been bluffing too when the stranger had put up a Sunday’s use to that neat-looking little twelve foot boat in lieu of the C-note Chuck had risen and everybody else had folded and said he was nuts or had balls or was just plain stupid. The ones who knew him well would bet he didn’t have more than five bucks in his pocket. Then again, Chuck had always been a wild card — uncaring, loose but loyal in the way that his people were to each other.
What was this gambling thing anyway? Just another way to see how people would react when the stakes were raised? Just another way for him to look for himself in the face of others? This man they called Uncle Chuck had always known he’d be a damn good soldier if only he’d had a war that was his own, that was legal. He’d avoided the thing in Europe not only because after his daddy, Willis, died, there would be no more men to carry on the name, but why should he go and fight for a country in which he still wasn’t completely free? Let the white boys go follow Generals McArthur and Patton. He was waiting for another Washington Carver.
But Chuck knew that he was capable of killing. The oppression by the white boss was more noticeable to him than Nadine and Willis, but not his sister, Louella before she’d run off. He knew he had it in him and it sometimes scared him; not the killing itself but the beating drums of its potential.
I imaged what might’ve been brewing around Chuck’s mind as he negotiated the death of Ruth.
C’mon Charlie, he tried unsuccessfully to lie to himself, it was only five feet deep. Okay maybe eight but no more than ten. You couldn’t have been more than twenty, okay maybe fifty yards from shore. You didn’t know your niece was going to stand up in the bow and try to hold a ballerina pose while standing on the gunwales, screaming at her young husband, Johnny, up on the shore to look, “see darlin’, your baby still has those moves. Look at me JC, your little wife moves like a cat even with a kitten-to-be in her tummy.”
You didn’t know that some passing wake from a distant white man’s power boat would hit the port hull like the slightest tap on the arm from a sleeping lover that awakens her with a violent lurch and she bolts upright as if a thumping nightmare had grabbed and shook her. You forgot the subtlety of the waters; that narrow balance beam between good and evil.
But did you ever really know them, Charlie boy? Did you cheat on the Cub Scout swim test that summer after your Senior year out on Lake Jordan northeast of Montgomery when your mama, Nadine, had sent you away for the summer after your daddy died and Louella had still not returned and she thought it good for you to live among other boys before you had to join the race of men? And was it a white Boy Scout with a sash covered in badges that’d told the Scoutmaster about the little Negro boy hiding under the pier when everybody else was being sent one hundred yards around the anchored canoe and back to the beach?
Oh, Charlie boy, you didn’t kill her. She was like your sister Louella, the one who had the baby at sixteen when you were only twelve but then left the baby Ruth for you and your mom to raise up because Daddy was sick by then and your sis had discovered jazz and that stuff they put in their arms with needles.
But you could swim, old Chuck, couldn’t you? You’d fished on the banks of every stream and creek that fed Mobile Bay after Daddy had finally died and Mama had moved you and little Ruth down to Mt Vernon, just north of Mobile to live with her sisters. You remember? When your lure got stuck on a rock and you had to wade out to the waist-deep water to uncatch it? Sometimes even on hot summer days you would dunk your whole head under water and think, no problem, I could’ve swam around that canoe if that asshole with the blonde eyebrows and peely nose had given me a chance. I wasn’t hiding, just getting my courage up. They shouldn’t have sent me home. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard and so many times. He shouldn’t have said that Negroes can’t swim.
You’d do it again though, wouldn’t you, Chucky boy?
Hell yes. You would’ve made sure he knew that the Winters boys didn’t buy into that nigger-calling shit.
But in a round about kinda’ tragedy you killed your baby sister niece, didn’t you? And you’re here to ask mama to give you absolution? Oh, Chuck, what will you do with yourself?
The truth was, Charlie could never know which words would hold the badge of finality and which ones might open up his mental frontier to sodbusters. Charlie could surprise even himself. He could walk by a store glass window, make his light brown eyes deepen and his wide red lips curl back against his white teeth that chewed on the ends of his thick nappy locks that had started to fall into tight spiraled curls snapping at the collar of the only jacket he had, the only shirt he’d run away with that afternoon on the lake. Then he’d put those lips into a secret unsayable challenge to speak only what was real at that moment. Even if it killed him later.
He could’ve made it around that canoe. He was just getting his courage up.
Inside the three room farm house that sat on the edge of forty-two acres of good soil that grew alfalfa and romaine and sometimes tobacco, Nadine Winters sat with her two sisters. After Ruth had passed and Chuck had gone away and I headed south with that little boat strapped to my roof, Nadine had left her little house and moved back in with her sisters and their husbands. When Uncle Chuck returned all the husbands were still out in those growing fields, picking the crops for the man who owned the fields and paid them thirty-five cents a bushel for harvesting the alfalfa and four cents for each head of romaine. Nadine’s husband was deep in another field but she couldn’t remember, didn’t want to remember where it was. Dead is dead, she’d always say, the living ought to remember that more. She’d stopped going to funerals after Willis died, and in many ways, just stopped remembering any pain.
When I’d driven through the night to tell her that the baby she had raised and had come out right and proper as a person was dead and that her only son who was a bit of a rambler but respected as all of the Winters men were, had disappeared into the thick world of the South, Nadine had looked through me and could only say that she couldn’t make any funeral because she had to stay home in case Louella stopped by.
Now, with the dust of the old Studebaker finally settled, Uncle Chuck walked up to the house of women with a small duffel over his shoulder and eighty-five cents in his pocket.
You’re home, Charlie, he tried to convince himself. You’re a survivor, time to start pulling it all together. But when he walked up onto the narrow wooden porch with two planks missing and called out, “Mama, Loretta, Aunt Mary, it’s Charlie,” the little clapboard house with the thin white sheets for curtains felt like a foreign country, small and strange. He was ashamed for his mama and for all Negroes. And he was beyond disgusted with himself.
He heard a piano playing inside. It was a hymn he remembered from his church-going youth when his folks would dress him and Louella up in their Sunday best each week and catch the bus down to the Union Springs Baptist Church for services. It was Nadine playing because she’d always change the tempo and gave it more of a folksy blues feel to it with her chord substitutions and subtle pause before sneaking in a blue note.
Chuck set his duffel down on the rickety swing and opened the screen door. It still squeaked but not loud enough to announce his entry over Nadine’s stomping pedal action of the ancient upright. He said “Mama” out loud again but she didn’t hear him. “It’s Charlie, Ma.” And he noticed that the old brown bun she used to wear up on her head had morphed into a mere spirit of gray and silver, thin and whispy and only a hint of the great locks she once carried. Her skin was a mortician’s color, pale and icy peach. But her hands moved around the keyboard in a natural way as if she was commanding the music from somewhere other than her fingers.
How long had it been? How much rain had fallen, or failed to fall, on the crops that supported his mother and her sisters and their husbands and the memories of all their children who’d left to find a better life in Mobile or Montgomery or even Birmingham? How long had he been standing there admiring this great matriarch, wondering what she would say when she finally turned and saw him frozen in life five steps behind him?
That’s when everything went black.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Loretta! What in God’s good name? Is that…? Oh, my Lord, what did you go and do? It’s Charlie you blind old bat! Go and get some cool rags. Go on now!”
“I’s sorry, Nadie. I just seen’t a big man a’standin’ behin’t you, thinkin’ I was a’savin’ yo life. I couldn’t sees if’n it was Charlie. Is he a’right? I hit ‘em purty hard.”
“Loretta, I tol’ you go and get some rags and water. There’s blood coming outta’ my boy’s head. Oh Lord God, don’t You mess with him. Now git!”
The truth was that Nadine’s sister, Loretta, was nearly blind, had the diabetes and gout and was acting on pure instinct. So too was Nadine in her warning tossed up to the God she worshipped. She had never threatened anyone before, let alone the one she prayed to. But she’d done it now and she meant it and the things out of her mouth were closer to demands than requests.
Loretta had hit Chuck with a three feet section of two by four that was left in the corner for carrying the big iron cooking pot when it got too hot. And she’d hit him good and solid, right on the left temple, the worst place to hit a man on his head.
That night, after Aunt Mary’s husband had gone to fetch the doc from town and he’d stitched him up and cleaned the wound and told them to keep an eye on him because, “there wasn’t much else they could do ‘ceptin they wanted to take him to the hospital in Mobile, assuming they had some money to pay for it,” which they didn’t, Nadine went back to her piano playing and said it’s outta my hands now. Her sisters watched with disbelief as she turned her back on her only boy and walked out of the dark bedroom near the back of the little house.
They looked at each other, eyes full of question and grief and more question while the husbands went outside to get the bottle and smoke and try to forget.
Out in the living room, they all heard it — a thick, dark sound played in a minor key; brooding, horrible music they’d never heard the likes of. It was beyond the sadness of blues. It was an evil vibration of the thick wires inside of the piano. A devil’s sound.
And Loretta stroked Charlie’s clammy brow, dabbing her eyes with the edge of a soiled rag left by the doc, adding red war paint to her dark, puffy cheeks. Loretta listened to the now-rhythmic breathing of Charlie, a sound that comforted her and lay opposed to the disturbing and discordant keys that Nadine welled up from the deepest of places that even her sister didn’t know hid such dark vibrations. And she prayed.
“Oh dear Lord, I’s as sorry as I ever bin in ma’ whole life. Take me Lord and leave this man and then if there’s anything left in my account please Lord take that devil sound out of Nadine a’fore it attracts the real thing hisself.”
And the men outside behind the house shook their heads and lowered their eyes but still drank hard enough to say out loud and to each other that alotta things jus’ ain’t right.