January 1, 2012

Old Charley

The door swung inward and the bulk of a man filled the opening from edge to edge. He stood in the doorway and quickly surveyed the room as if to weigh his options before making a strategic placement of himself within my office.

“Charley Matheson,” he announced.

He unstoppered himself from the doorway and a gush of people entered along with him in his wake, the rest of the Matheson family who wanted to weigh in on “Pops buying a house.”

I stood in the middle of the room directing his entourage to various areas of engagement – one to the bulletin board, two to the bathrooms, one to get a drink of water. I waved papers in front of Mr. Matheson’s face, papers I thought might entice him to change his life, seduce him into moving north out of the mosquito-infested plains where “levees threatened to break and The Blacks are taking over.”

As the commotion whirled around me I sighed and rubbed my face, my eyes. I’ve lived my life in the South where racism is an ever-present part of the culture like owning a truck and a hound and how you grow enough yellow squash in the summer to supply all your neighbors and the food bank, too.

“It ain’t that I’m against The Blacks,” he continued, as if to reassure me he wasn’t actually a racist. “I got a good friend who’s black, so it ain’t that. But you know…”

He paused and looked at my face, waiting for me to agree that I understand the difference between Not Liking the Blacks and being A Racist. I do not understand it. And yet… having lived here for so long, I understand the difference as they see it.

“We have a nice selection of things to look at Mr. Matheson. I’m certain you’ll like our area.”

I opened the door for him, turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED and ushered them all out the door.

“The last time the levees threatened to break I packed up everything I owned – my tractors, my tools, all my machinery and equipment for the farm. I loaded it all up on a big trailer and took it to my friend's to wait out the flooding. And when I came back it had all been stolen. All of it. Gone.”

I nodded sympathetically. “That’s terrible,” I said and patted him on the arm.

“I just can’t live with it anymore. When I go shopping, I look around and I’m like a marshmallah in a bag full of chocolate chips and I don’t like it.”

“We should go,” I press firmly and point south in the direction we’d start driving.

* * *

Sometimes people are redeemable. Sometimes they are not.

And principles always matter in one’s heart, but sometimes don’t amount for much in real world applications.

As I headed south, an image swam up to the surface of my mind – me sitting at a cheap and grimy fake wood Formica kitchen table in a ramshackle house with the infuriating and grouchy Mr. Bonds.

“Now then,” he said with a heavy pause, the corners of his mouth twitching slightly as if he is making an effort not to smile about a joke he anticipates telling. “What I do NOT want is for you to show this house to any Black People.”

My eyebrows crunched together and I’m pretty certain my face might have started to fold in on itself in distaste. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Of course I’m not kidding, young lady. I wouldn’t do that to my neighbors, sell this house to Blacks.”

“Well, Mr. Bonds. I will tell you that the Federal Fair Housing Act prohibits the discrimination against persons based on race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability.”

“I don’t need the Gub’ment to tell me who I can and can’t sell my house to.”

“The Government isn’t telling you who you can and can’t sell your house to, they’re telling ME who I can and can’t sell your house to.  And besides, Mr. Bonds, you know you’re attitude is just plain wrong.”

He blinked and sat back looking at me as if I was delivering the surprising news that his virgin wife would be giving birth to the baby Jesus.  “No it ain’t.”

I pushed my papers into a tidy pile, carefully lining up the edges. “It IS wrong, Mr. Bonds. I’m afraid you’ll need to find someone else to help you with your house.”

* * *

The Matheson House must have a fireplace. It must have 40 acres or more. It also must have a basement in case there are storms. They must be able to live off the land, must be self-sufficient in case Obama is elected again and the world goes to hell.

The first house was “too rustic” according to Mrs. Matheson who breezed through it in less than two minutes.

“The deer heads don’t convey,” I call after her, half-joking. Nobody but me thought it was funny.

Mr. Matheson wanted to look in the garage but his wife insisted they leave as there was no point wasting time in a house she couldn’t live in.  She fled the house leaving Mr. Matheson and I standing in the living room looking at one another.

“She won’t like the next one if she doesn’t like this one, Mr. Matheson.”

“Call me Charley.”

“Okay, Charley, but she won’t.”

And indeed, the road was too long and all dirt. Yet, it was perfect for Charley. “It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” he whispered to me as we huddled together next to the huge stone fireplace in the round lodge-style living room.

He leaned his ear down toward my mouth as I whispered back, “Don’t worry, we’ll find it for you. We’ll make it work.”

The third house was too far out of town, but I knew as I turned into the fourth house that it was bound to be perfect.  It bordered a highway and had a long, sweeping curved driveway that was paved. It sat sedate and solidly-bricked on a hill overlooking a cattle pasture with a pond. It had two fireplaces, his and hers.

“This would be my room, Charley,” I teased, pointing to the sun room that had its own fireplace. “And no men allowed.”

“Who’d load yer wood up and start the fire?”

We stood next to each other looking through the sunroom glass. I crossed my arms and said, “I reckon I’d let a fella bring me some firewood now and again.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Old Charley grin before he wandered off to find his missus.

We drove to the back of the property to find the fourth corner of the land. I got out of my car and Charley got out of his. We stood at the corner and leaned on the fence post and looked out at the field where the cows were grazing.

“Like it?”

“Yes I do, missy.”

“Think Mama will like it?”

He stood straight and wiggled the fence to test its sturdiness. “Hard to say. But we won't take it if she don’t like it. Me, I’d be happy most anywhere, but she’s more particular.”

“Ain’t that just like a woman to be fussy about her house?”

“Ain’t it,” he agreed.

“Well, you must be doing something right since you’ve been married all these years.”

He clapped his big hand on my shoulder where it sat for a minute like a hot sack of grain. “Truth be known, she’s my second. I was married to the boy’s mama for 38 years and you know what she done?”

“No?”

“I was working two jobs and she wasn’t doing nothing. And I wanted to get rid of my old trailer and get a new one so I could get some bigger jobs and she threw a big ole fit and told me absolutely not was I gonna spend the money I earned on a new goose-neck trailer. Well how’s a man sposta make a living if he don’t got the right equipment?”

A white cow brayed its opinion in the distance.

“I still got that goose-neck trailer, but I ain’t got the wife no more.”

I laughed and we walked back to his truck where I waited for him to get in and I said my goodbyes to Mrs. Matheson and the rest of the family, then watched them drive away, back to their house with the dangerous levees and their one black friend and Those Other Blacks.

And I gazed out again at the pastures and wondered how the weather was in Portland this time of year.

14 comments:

  1. There are a lot of tiny minds out there.
    I live in the south as well, but I wasn't raised here. Where I was raised I heard negative things about American Indians. I don't remember my parents ever saying anything racist, and I have always felt people were people. Period.

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  2. Love your writing. I'm in Australia and I don't have any Aboriginal friends, there aren't any where I live and in the town south of me where they live, they tend to stick together. But I'd like to know them, I'd learn a lot.

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  3. This is such a great post. Your writing is flawless.

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  4. What an excellent piece of writing. Sadly, racism rears it's ugly head even here in Maine on occasion. Unfortunately ignorance is a hard habit to break.

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  5. Great post. It's sad to realize there are still people who think like this, but I've encountered quite a few of them here in GA over the years. However, the situation has improved dramatically since we moved here in '71.

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  6. Altho born and raise in Texas I was somewhat insulated to racism until I got a jog as a teenager with a garbage crew. Actually, I enjoyed it and enjoyed the guys I worked with. Then lunch time came. We drove to town and the crew foreman told me I needed to go in the front door of the cafe...they would go in the back. I thought this absurd and insisted that I would go with them. This caused a bit of discussion, but I finally entered the rear of the cafe with them and sat to eat with the 'Neeegroes' (as they were not-too-affectionately referred to).

    An eye opener. From that point on I started to pay attention to what went on around me. And tried to understand, but never could.

    I understand what you are saying, and I appreciate your eloquence in saying it.

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  7. “I reckon I’d let a fella bring me some firewood now and again.”

    Yer such a tease.

    This is good. You oughter become one of them there writer folks.

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  8. I will let you bring me a good story every once in awhile.

    &^)

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  9. Ernest: I agree... people are people. Boo on the tiny minds!

    Julie: Thanks for visiting. I peeked briefly at your blog... love your watercolors. Gonna go back and visit when I'm done here!

    Starting Over: You are so sweet to me. I am always happy to see you here.

    Eva: I agree. I had a friend from Massachusetts also tell me some stories from where she is. I forget it's not just a southern thing.

    Susan: I sense it's better too. I hope we are right!

    Jerry: Thanks for telling that story. I hear about those things but have never experienced them myself. What a world.

    Steve: You always give such good advice!

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  10. Lovely post, thanks. Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!

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  11. Your writing IS flawless, Wendy. You've captured this so well, so perfectly.

    So frustratingly.

    I know people like this.

    Sigh.

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  12. I loved the same line Steve did. In fact, it was at that very line that I felt the presence of tension that drew me further into the story. It was at that moment that I liked both characters and they had flesh whereas before they were just stick figures with ideals. Damn you right gud Wendy. Love this story!

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  13. Charles Matheson sounds suspiciously like charles manson, cows dont bray, they go moo. Donkeys bray. I like that word bray....Helter Skelter or the race war was high up there in charlies head.

    The federal fair housing act might prohibit by the way, but zoning laws can override that since these are more specific. Charlie has a point to go with his pointy head.

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