An elderly curmudgeon finds himself humbled by life and by living with his daughter.
|Earl's Playing by Himself, Man
“Daddy, have you taken a bath yet?”
Ernestine’s voice, hesitant but hopeful, drifts from the kitchen, along with the scent and sizzle of scrambled eggs and bacon.
A pop of hot grease is the only answer she receives.
Her voice sounds again, louder this time, using irritation and anticipated frustration as its fuel.
“Daddy, did you hear me? Have you been in that tub yet?”
A spatula clatters against a countertop as determined feet stomp through the kitchen and into an open, split-level living room/dining room. Ernestine Shah raises her head, tensing her diaphragm as she prepares to power her voice into the house upstairs.
“Daddy! Have you been in that bathtub yet?!”
“I’m already down here,” comes a gruff announcement from behind Ernestine’s right shoulder. Earl Shorter sits fully dressed in his daughter’s living room. But while he acknowledges to anyone who will listen that the house belongs to Ernestine and her husband Bernard, Earl reclines in the couch as if he has every confidence that he has planted a flag and claimed this piece of furniture for his own. Earl Shorter sits dressed in newly polished brown Stacey Adams shoes. His tan slacks are freshly pressed, as is his pin-stripped, short-sleeved dress shirt. His slacks are held up not with a belt, but with well-worn leather braces. The neatness of his ensemble is disrupted by the expression on his face. Earl Shorter’s forehead is knitted with lines, and his face is masked in a tight scowl, one that suggests he is ready for war.
“Daddy, why didn’t you answer me when I called you?” The irritation that hangs in her voice makes her feel momentary shame. Her fingers squeeze the knife she has absent-mindedly kept in her right hand.
“I didn’t like the question.” Earl’s tone is regal. “That’s the nice thing about being grown. I don’t have to answer questions that I don’t like. And last I checked, I was still grown enough to still be your father.”
If you’re so damn grown, then why do I have to remind your ass to take a bath each morning, thought Ernestine. The words moved across her mind as a look of anger moved across her face. She inhales deeply and pushes the air through her broad nose. What is supposed to be a cleansing breath doesn’t leave her feeling very clean.
“Daddy, have you had your bath this morning?”
“I done told you I’m not fond of that question.”
With that statement, a hot, red light clicks on inside Ernestine’s head. A steaming motor springs to life somewhere in the back of her throat and her tongue and vocal cords begin to move seemingly of their own volition.
“And I have told you that I am sick of smelling your funky behind every morning when you come down those stairs. Now give me a straight answer like you have some sense. Did you run the water and place your wrinkled rear-end inside that tub?”
At the top of the staircase, a pair of young eyes peers from around the hallway corner. Young Ruben Shah smiles and his deep brown eyes dance as he watches his mother and grandfather do battle. Ruben loves both of them, but he takes a particular kind of joy in watching the two argue. While Ruben and his mother disagree from time to time, good home training, common sense, and a healthy fear of his father’s belt combine to keep Ruben from ever daring to go this far with any disagreement with his mother. But he is able to experience a vicarious joy in the confrontations between his mother and his grandfather. He calls these sparing matches verbal beat downs, much to his mother’s shame and displeasure, and they are the closest the young man will ever come to open disrespect of a parent in his lifetime. Ruben knows first hand that his mother’s tongue can draw blood, and he suspects that his grandfather is about to leave a red mess all over his living room couch.
“Now, old man,” Ernestine warns, “I’m going to go upstairs into that bathroom and look to see if you took your bath. Don’t make me go up there and find that you haven’t washed up.”
“I ain’t making you go up there girl,” Earl shoots back as his daughter climbs the steps and turns into the bathroom. “Your nosey but is what’s making you go up there. If you’d stop worrying about my business, you could get back in that kitchen like you need to and finish my breakfast.”
Ruben feels more than sees his mother coming up the stairs. Retreating from the oncoming thunderclouds, Ruben backpedals into his bedroom and closes the door.
The Doppler radar in the seat of his pants has him hoping that a closed door will provide some shelter from the north-moving weather front.
Ernestine can feel the lack of moisture in the bathroom. The mirrors are fog free. The towel that is reserved for her father shows signs of wetness, but the tub is too clean. Ernestine is quite certain that her father has never cleaned a bathroom once in all of his seventy-six years. She spins on her heels and stomps back down the staircase.
“Willie Earl Shorter, you know damn well you have not set one crusty toe inside that tub. That bathroom is too clean for you to have washed off any dirt inside of it.” Ernestine is all but howling at this point, and any pretense of parental deference has been drowned in the anger and exasperation she feels at having to endure this nonsense from her father. She wags the butcher knife in the air with her right hand as she makes each point, the knife serving as a surrogate for her otherwise occupied index finger.
“Now you know I don’t like you first naming me, girl,” cautions Earl. “And I don’t like you waving that knife at me either. You could cut somebody with that.”
“Old man,” bellows Ernestine, “if you don’t get in that tub, I’ll cut your toes off, I’ll cut your feet off, I’ll cut your legs off, I’ll cut your dick off! Now get on in that tub before you make me put myself in jail.”
From behind a cracked bedroom door, teeth clamp down painfully on soft, pink flesh in order to hold back raucous laughter.
* * *
"Mamma, its Grandma on the phone."
"Okay, Ruben, I have it." The boy passes the phone to his mother, but seems to look at her warily as he leaves the room.
"Hello, there Mah Dear."
"How are things with the family?"
"Things are alright, Mah Dear. I can’t complain."
"We’ll it sounds like maybe you’d like to."
"I’m not sure I take your meaning."
"I think you take my meaning just fine girl. What kinds of trouble you got going on in that house of yours? Don’t play games with me and don’t make me ask you no third time. We know two times already been one time too many"
"I’m trying not to play games with you, Mah Dear. After all those years of whippings, I think that lesson finally sunk through."
"Yeah, Ernestine, you always was a stubborn child. But a hard head makes for a soft bottom. I almost put in as much work putting that switch to your behind as I did washing those peoples laundry. And Lord knows I washed a lot of laundry."
"Mah Dear, that’s the reason I used to hate the summertime. When school was out it seemed like I got a whipping almost every day."
"Well, we both know that if I whipped you once you earned it twice. You was a good girl. I just had to beat you regular to keep you that way. And it sounds to me like it’s been too long since you and that switch had a talk ‘cause you think you got too smart and I got too old, that now you can put that university tricknology on me and make me forget the question. Now before I get you sister Gladiola to drive me all the way out to your husband’s home with a strap across my lap, you need to tell me what’s going on with your father."
"I already talked to Ruben".
These last words are added with a gravity that makes it plain that there are no further requests that need to be made about the matter.
The thought that her own son would report on her, reveal her own misdeeds, infanticize her by passing word of her behavior up the ancestral line, gives Ernestine brief insight into why some creatures eat their young.
“Don’t be mad at the boy, Ernestine. He didn’t bring the news to me. I pulled it out of him since I could tell something not right was going on when he got on the phone. I don’t have to put my eyes on you to get to the root. I’ve got ears that know things too.
When Eliza Shorter did put her eyes on you, she unleashed a hard, piercing gaze that had become the stuff of legend. Would-be boyfriends used to tell Ernestine that her mother had a way of looking right through you. Her stare melted the courage of many a young man who came to call upon Mrs. Shorter’s daughters. That stare also proved to be a powerful contraceptive, as it also melted the manhood of one Floyd Richenbacher who had boasted that he intended to get Ernestine alone and “pop that cherry”.
Eliza Shorter’s stare even had the unintended effect of chilling the hearts of her grandchildren.
“I think that boy is afraid of me,” Mah Dear had said to Ernestine one night while Johnny Carson was cracking one-liners about Ronald Reagans’ hair dresser.
“What do you mean by that Mah Dear?”
“When I come into the room, his eyes stay on me from the time I walk in until I walk out.”
“Well, I told him that if he didn’t behave in your house, that Grandma was going to spank him.”
“Don’t you go telling that boy that! I don’t want him to be afraid of me. I want him to love me.”
And Eliza Shorter and Ruben did become more affectionate with one another, to the point where Ernestine wondered if it was easier to love children that you didn’t have to raise or beat on.
“I know he’s got his limits, more can’ts than cans,” Eliza Shorter concedes about her one-time husband. “Couldn’t keep a job, couldn’t keep a promise, couldn’t keep his temper. I don’t imagine he did any better keeping his hands off of other women.”
Ernestine wonders if the chain gangs of joblessness and eight mouths to feed could formulate a powerful motivation for extramarital escapism. She tries and fails to stop her curiosity before she begins to wonder what kind of coffles her own husband might be wearing, and to what lengths he might go to slip free of them from time to time.
“I remember one morning, when you was a little thing, I was in the kitchen cooking breakfast. You’d crawled into bed with your father and the two of you was just waking up. And Earl used to make this noise in the morning, got on my nerves. Sounded like a bullfrog’s death rattle played back on a record set too slow. Aaaahhhot. Aaaahhhot. Aaaahhhot. Sometimes, when I stood in the kitchen and heard that noise leaking out of his mouth, I thought about putting something extra in Earl’s grits just so I wouldn’t have to hear those damn bullfrogs ever again. So, Ernestine, I know a little bit about what you was going through this morning.”
“You do Mah dear?”
“Yes, girl. I do. You’re not crazy, at least not yet. That’s just part of life with your daddy. And there was times when life with Earl had its good parts. “
“That morning the two of you was dueling bullfrogs. He was going Aaaahhhot. Aaaahhhot. And you was answering back as best you could. Aaaahhhot. Aaaahhhot. And it was driving me crazy. I hollered back there for you to stop. I knew I couldn’t tell Earl to shut up, not back then. But I figured one croaking toad was easier to bear than two.”
There is a thrill that we never outgrow, the primal narrative of having our parents tell us stories of our youth, stories that we ourselves might only vaguely remember. Hearing the exploits of our younger selves and our younger parents is much like the golden days of radio when audiences stared at a wooden box and listened intently, using their imaginations to embellish their mental pictures of what was happening.
“Did I cooperate?” asks Ernestine.
“Oh, you got quiet for a while. But your daddy kept on croaking. Aaaahhhot. Aaaahhhot. And hearing him have so much fun made you bold. Before I knew it, both those damn bullfrogs was back.”
“So I set down the mixing bowl and walked to the bedroom, looked right at you, and told you what would happen if I heard anymore bullfrog noises come out of your mouth. And I thought that kind of promise, and the fact that I’d just whipped your tail the day before, would shut you up. Maybe even Earl would see how close you was to getting into trouble and he’d stop too.”
“But Willie Earl Shorter never does anything the easy way, and neither does his daughter. Midwife pulled him out the womb with as much sense and judgment as he had money in his pocket.”
Ernestine feels guilty, but can’t help but laugh out loud.
“Laugh all you want Ernestine, but you weren’t much better. I swear you had to be born with an extra layer or two of skin, some covering your rear end and come covering the opening to your ears. One kept you from listening to what I told you to do, the other kept you from feeling the switch like the other kids when I beat you for not listening.”
Ernestine thought her mother’s efforts at explaining childhood misbehavior through pseudo-science sounded like a less articulate Thomas Jefferson attempting to rationalize his ownership and abuse of enslaved Africans: “Their kidneys don’t function as do those of Europeans. They sweat more through their glands, emitting a most unpleasant odor. They require less sleep. Never have I heard one of them utter one word above plain narration.”
“So sure enough, my thick-headed, thick-bottomed little ol’ Ernestine can’t help but join back in bullfrogging with her daddy before I even have a chance to pick that mixing bowl up.”
“I wonder sometimes did you realize I was going to beat you and decided the fun was worth the pain, or were you just too busy playing to even think about the fun you was having on credit and the fact that that bill was going to come due on your behind real soon.
“Mah Dear, I think I was mostly caught up in the moment, having fun with Daddy. I might have vaguely thought I was safe because I was playing the same game Daddy was playing, and that that meant you couldn’t whoop me.”
“Well, he did stay in bed longer than usual. He ate breakfast, went to work late. Bought you a little piece of extra time. He took so long to leave that I think you forgot what you had waiting for you. You had the nerve to look surprised when I came in the bedroom for you.”
“Well, Mah Dear, it was the way you called for spanking that was almost as scary as the spanking itself. “Come ‘ere, you wall-eyed heifer you!” Ernestine contorts her face and shouts, almost grunts, these words out like some odd cross between a plantation overseer and a Marine Corps drill instructor. The imitation is less than flattering, but Eliza Shorter laughs until water leaks from her eyes because her daughter has captured her dead on.
“As a husband he was a wet fart. But he tried as a father. Tried the best he thought he knew how. Even managed to squirt out a bit more affection than his own daddy did. Now mind you, that ain’t saying much, since your granddaddy lived someplace south of useless. That old turd used to show up at your father’s job on pay days, asking for what he felt was his share. We got seven children to clothe and feed, and this man talking ‘bout ‘his share’. And damned if your daddy wasn’t fool enough to give it to him.
Eliza Shorter’s memories were uncharacteristically sugar-coated, especially where Willie Earl Shorter was concerned. Ernestine realizes that part of the reason for this sunny nostalgia was Mah Dear had a point she was trying to make; a present, protective, and playful father was, in theory, harder to pull a knife on. But the other part was that Willie Earl Shorter was easier to think of in the past tense, as a figure thirty-five years removed who more often than not had the decency to not intrude upon the present. He was one of those people who were simply easier to love at a distance, more agreeable when that foul temper—and even more foul body odor—were in someone else’s house.
Ernestine has more sour memories of her daddy, memories that she and Eliza Shorter never give words to, but are too jagged to actually be forgotten. Memories of an evening when daddy was younger, when he was coming home from one of those construction job that never seemed to last very long. Looking back with adult eyes, Ernestine would often wonder if that younger Earl realized something was wrong when he saw that the front door was closed; the Shorters were Mississippi folk, and even though the promise of the Midwestern factories and an escape from the weight of Jim Crow had brought them north, they still ate grits in the morning, chewed starch in the afternoons, and left their doors open and unlocked in the summertime whenever they were home.
On that evening the wooden door was closed and the grey screen door was locked and latched. Willie Earl Shorter could not get past the cold screen door to use his key. Ernestine remembers the sound of her father rattling the screen door, as if a few shakes were all it would take for the screen door to remember its place, realize who it was playing with and open up.
But the metal screen door defied him, just as his oldest son Robert Earl did when his daddy called to him to open up the damn door. Back then, divorce was something beyond the means of most Colored folk. But all permanent separation needed was a locked door and the fear of what fists and nightsticks felt like should matters become so loud that a neighbor or landlord had to call the police.
* * *
Henry Shepard looks at the checkerboard before him on the park table. He looks at his watch and then glances back at the board. Henry shakes his head in slight disbelief and irritation.
Then the familiar jingle of metal coins clinking against a pocket watch brings a broad smile across his face. Without looking away from the red and black battlefield, the gray-bearded man speaks. His voice is thick with warmth and sarcasm as each word leisurely leaves his mouth.
“It’s about time you showed up, Earl. I was starting to think I’d run you off.”
“You can just put those grinning teeth back in your mouth now, Negro. You ‘bout to let a lucky win make you forget yourself. Don’t let those teeth write no checks that your butt can’t cash.”
Henry chuckles as he lifts his gaze to meet that glaring eyes of his friend.
“Now, Earl, every Monday I get off that number 14 bus, and I see you sitting here at this table, waiting for me to bring this checkerboard. The first time in weeks that I get a win in, you suddenly can’t get here on time. How you gonna have that watch bouncing around in your pocket and not look at it so you can be places on time?”
“Don’t you fret none, Shep,” Earl shoots back. “There’s still plenty ‘nough morning left for me to wear your ass out with these here checkers.”
A clean and well-scrubbed Earl Shorter sits down at his side of the checkerboard.
He sets down a folder piece of newspaper and neatly folded brown paper bag. His right hand is still clutching another brown paper bag. This one is worn and wrinkled to the point of looking antique.
“’Sides, you know I don’t believe in throwing away my pension on bus tokens. I’m not ready to start rolling around in one of those wheel chairs yet either, no matter what that girl Ernestine thinks. If I can walk, I’m going to walk.”
“Well, then, walk faster,” Henry teases. “Don’t be cheap and slow, man. Now pass out those checkers that you’re holding onto so tightly. I feel like I’m still on a roll.”
As he sees the glee in Henry’s eyes, the morning scowl fades some from Earl Shorter’s face. Despite all of Earl’s harsh talk, Henry’s light-hearted joking has managed to clear a little of the fog of war that had been hanging over Earl’s mind.
“You awful happy for a man who is about to lose,” Earl says as he allows himself a chuckle of his own. He digs into the tired looking paper bag, and begins placing the checkers on the board.
“Hold on now, doctor,” Henry interrupts excitedly. “I do believe since I won the last game, it’s my right to choose colors. I think I’d like those black checkers today.” Henry’s head bobs from left to right as he turns the idea around in his head. He spins the checkerboard around so that the black checkers are now on his side.
“Shep, you know I always play black. You don’t care one way or the other, but I always play black.”
Earl starts to spin the black checkers back to his end, but Henry is holding the board firmly, smiling and refusing to let go. Red and black checkers slide back and forth across the board with apprehension as the two old men tug at the checkerboard in their hands.
“Well, then, I guess it’s about time you tried another color then, huh?”
“Stop playing at me, man.”
“I’m not trying to play at you, Earl. I’m trying to play with you. You’re the one messing that up with all of this fuss you’re making.”
Henry is becoming a little surprised by the seriousness of Earl’s protestations. However, far from being alarmed, Henry Shepard is now beginning to enjoy this unseemly tug-o-war. The more agitated Earl becomes, the more Henry has to hold back his bubbling laughter.
“Don’t do this, Shep. I’m telling you true. I always play black ‘cause that’s the color I feel. Those red checkers don’t have no feeling in them for me. Turn those checkers loose.”
“I’ll turn the checkers loose when you stop acting like the Honorable Malcolm Farrakhan. They’re just checkers, man. You’re not desegregating schools. All you’re doing is holding up the game.”
“Dammit, Shep! Leggo them checkers!”
“You’re getting wound up over pieces of plastic. Those red checkers aren’t going to hurt you, Earl. They’re harmless. I wouldn’t let them hurt you anyway. You know I’ve got your back. In a fight, the two of us could take those checkers, man. I know we could.” Henry is laughing now. Checkers of both colors are jumping in terror from the gyrating cardboard square.
“If you don’t take your greasy hands off that damn checkerboard…” Earl begins to threaten as anger swells in his voice and chest.
Suddenly there is a muffled tearing sound and both men jerk back in opposite directions. The board has torn in half, and the last brave checkers are plunging to the concrete floor below. Some of the plastic disks bounce off the ground and roll towards the nearby grass in an effort to hide themselves from the unseemly commotion.
“Goddammit, Earl! What’s wrong with your stubborn, mule-headed butt?”
“Me? You the sucker that want to play games. You the one that tore the checkerboard.”
“I had that board for over thirty years. You go acting a fool and now it’s ripped. Can you even manage an apology?”
The sight of the torn checkerboard has a sudden quieting effect on Earl Shorter. He stares down at his feet, slightly shame-faced.
Henry sees the downcast face of his longtime friend, and notes the small signs of contrition in the droop of Earl’s head and shoulders.
The two men sit on either side of the mortally wounded checkerboard, scattered circles of black and red surrounding them like broken glass at the scene of a gruesome accident. An audacious squirrel, plumply satisfied and emboldened from years of being fed from park benches, skitters down from a nearby tree. This furry witness brazenly darts between Earl and Henry, sniffing at the fallen checkers.
“I think that ol’ squirrel could put these checkers to better use than we could right now,” admits Henry with no small amount of shame in his voice. “Earl, you old goat. Why do you always have to be so damn stubborn all the time?”
“Baa, baa, Negro. It ain’t like mine were the only brown hands pulling at that checkerboard,” Earl softly observes. He underscores his point with a snort and a chuckle. “Liza put that same question to me the night before she locked me out the house,” Earl concedes. He takes a deep breath and blows the air out of his large nostrils.
“When I’m in the middle of it, the thing always seems so important…like I’m going to shrink and lose something if I don’t hold on and stand firm.”
Earl pauses again. The thought of being put out by his wife nearly forty years years ago somehow brings a smile to his face. Coupled with his uncharacteristic confession, Earl feels some of the tightness in his chest give way to the broadening smile that plays across his full lips.
“It seems like I can’t win no arguments with nobody no how,” Earl says with surprising warmth. “Let me know how much I owe you for that checkerboard, while I get these cards out of my pocket. I ain’t whipped your old, rusty ass in cards since the last time Detroit had a white mayor.”
“And you’re not going to win again until then either.” Henry smiles and leans forward to play cards with his old friend.