by S. Evan Stubblefield
Ben sat at the kitchen table making Christmas cookies. Through the window above the kitchen sink, he could see that little house his mother hated so much. It stood just inside their back fence, a small two-room place just big enough for one. Sometimes he’d find his mother staring out the window at it, cursing beneath her breath. She taught Ben’s sister, Clarice, to hate it too. But Ben never felt that way. When his mother wasn’t looking, he’d go sit in that house and listen to the stories his Uncle Bridge told about the war. Uncle Bridge fought with the Tuskegee Airmen, dropping German fighter pilots right out of the sky. He told Ben all sorts of stories, stories about bar fights and dogfights and women, and he told him what it felt like to fly. His mother would not let Bridge near the house. Even on holidays when everyone else in town rediscovered humbleness of heart, offering the drunkards and the gamblers and the breakers of families a place around Christmas or Easter table, Bridge stayed out there with his empty liquor bottles lined up on the shelves above his bed, like the prize heads wealthy men stuff and put above the fireplace. Years ago he’d told Ben they were his penance for all of the wrong he’d done in the world. And Ben, about ten years old at the time, stood counting the bottles out loud, astounded at the final number. “Twenty-three!” he’d said. “Should be one or two hundred more up there,” said Bridge. Ben had stared at his uncle open-mouthed and wordless, imagining the whole little house crammed with liquor bottles. Now five years on, there were several more bottles taking up space on those shelves and in what Ben’s mother might call “otherwise useful cabinets” in the kitchen at the back of the house. Ben had not bothered counting any of those; he’d stopped counting those bottles long ago. As he added green sugar to the cookies, his Auntie Ella—a woman Ben had not seen since he was a child—sat beside him making bread pudding while his mother moved around the kitchen pulling ingredients for gumbo from the shelves. His mother planned on having about a dozen people over for Christmas dinner tomorrow, like she did every year, uncles and aunts and cousins all crowded around the dining room table in the other room. Everybody but Bridge. As Ella and his mother cooked, they talked about how life was when they were younger and about how life was going to be as they got older, once the civil rights people finished their work. Ben’s mother talked about things the old people used to say about being free. “My mama used to talk about being unfettered. Remember?” Ben’s mother said.
“I remember.” “‘Not just your feet, but also your soul.’” They said together then shook their heads.
“She was something,” said Ella. “I wish she could see this. Ray too,” his mother said. “Well, she’s looking on from somewhere, I suspect—and Ray.”
Fiona raised her eyes to the ceiling as if she could see both of them. “They up there, guiding the youth.” Then she looked over at Ben and smiled. Auntie Ella, though not related, was like her older sister. They had grown up together, and Ben noticed his mother would listen to her in a way that she wouldn’t listen to other people. Even when he overheard their conversations on the phone, he could tell Ella had some influence. She was the one who convinced his mother to let him be on the basketball team, convinced her to let Clarice date the older boy who drove a car. Their relationship made Ben wonder what it had been like back before he was born, when his mother came to the city and met his daddy, a man he had never known, though there were pictures of him everywhere. One of them sat on the coffee table in the living room. His father and his mother stood in front of an old Ford truck. Another one, in the family picture album, showed him holding Ben as a baby. A third, a slick headshot, was tacked to the wall in Uncle Bridge’s place. The two of them had been brothers, close. In fact, Bridge built the house out back with plans for a bigger one because they were going to raise their families together. That was before his daddy ended up in the hospital, before a man nearly beat him to death. His mother never told the details of that story. Ben never asked. Fiona picked up the flour jar from the counter and without opening it asked, “Baby, did you use up all the flour for those cookies?” “Yes, I did,” Ben said. “I need some for the roux. Get it for me, please. From that little store down the street.” She handed him a dollar. Ben sighed as he stood to take the money. His sister had decided to help out at the church instead of sticking around the house. Clarice seemed to be able to get away with things he couldn’t. She was older, maybe that was why, though Ben could swear his mother favored her. The two of them would sit on the couch and look at old wedding pictures and dream about Clarice’s future family. His mother did no such thing with him, told him to get his feet off the furniture, told him to come home before dark. In any case, it was possible, probable, that even if he’d asked to go help out at the church, he’d still be stuck at home. His mother would have asked him (in a way that wasn’t asking), who would visit with Auntie Ella and who would help with the cooking—even though visiting and cooking were woman-type chores. Still, it was always him she chose to do them, like she knew it bothered him and didn’t care. Or maybe she was doing something motherly he truly did not understand. Anyway, he knew not to complain. The corner store was a five-minute walk from their house. To get there Ben always went through the gate at the side of the yard and then down a dirt path between the houses in the neighborhood, a kind of narrow, unofficial alley. He passed Bridge’s place on the way, waving if he saw him in the window or out on the porch. Today as he passed, the front door was ajar and the place still dark, which was strange. Bridge never left his door open—not unless the weather was hot and humid; even then it was wide open for the breeze and not slightly open. Ben approached the house with caution, anticipating his mother’s voice. She knew he went out there to talk to Bridge—she heard the stories he told and had to know he couldn’t have gotten them from anyone else. But she ignored that fact unless she saw Ben by the house, then she’d yell for him to come away from there. It was a little bit like being in jail with the warden right there making sure you didn’t do anything that you weren’t supposed to. At school last spring, his social studies teacher Mrs. Wright challenged the class to define freedom. “What is freedom? What does it mean? Do you really have freedom? Do I?” she’d asked. Ben’s friend Arnold Ewing pulled out a dictionary and read the definition out loud, making the whole class laugh. Another one of his friends, John, chided Arnold, “You took mine,” he said. There was more laughter, then the teacher called on Ben. He said freedom meant doing what you wanted without somebody else telling you no. Lots of kids agreed with that. Mrs. Wright said, “If freedom means you want to hurt somebody, and you can do whatever you want to them, should you have the freedom to do that?” Everybody in the room got quiet, then Ben said, “No, that can’t be right. I mean, what about the guy getting beat? Doesn’t he have the freedom not to get beat up?” “Well, what do the rest of you think?” Mrs. Wright asked. And for the next thirty minutes they wrangled the idea around in the classroom. After school that day, he hung out at Arnold’s house. They sat in his room and talked about the things they always talked about. They called out the names of girls they liked, made predictions about who’d get chosen for varsity, and complained about the privileges of their older sisters. They joked around about freedom. Arnold suddenly stood up and said, “Hey, gotta show you something.” He took Ben out to his father’s shed where shovels, buckets, a ladder, and other tools hung on the walls. They met here in the summer to go fishing, usually just as the sun rose. The poles the Ewings had hung on the roof beams, and for a minute, Ben thought about improving his fishing skills instead of whatever Arnold was pulling out from under his dad’s workbench at the back of the room. He reached up to touch the cork handle of a rod. “You’re gonna want to forget about fishing a minute,” said Arnold as he pulled things out of a crate. “What I’m about to show you, this is better than fish.” Arnold made him get down and squat beside him. Then he showed him his father’s stash of whiskey, girlie magazines, and a box of Cremo cigars, all right there in the unlocked shed. “Couple days ago, my daddy said,” and for this Arnold deepened his voice to sound like his father, “‘Son, go outside find me my wrench.’ He’s up under the sink, fixing it. And I came out here looking around everywhere, and I found that.” “Man. Have you?” Arnold shook his head, shrugged. “My mama would kill me for that. Besides, how could I? My folks are always right there. But, there it is—‘man tools.’” Ben said, “Not always. What about right after school? They’re not there then.” Arnold nodded. “My mama always knows where I am, or where I was. Don’t know how she does it. Your mama don’t?” Mrs. Ewing called for them out the back door. “See what I mean,” said Arnold. “Always there.” He shoved the contraband back underneath the workbench. “You never know, though.”
Ben was almost at Bridge’s door when his mother called to him from the back porch. “Ben, where are you going?” “Checking on Uncle Bridge.” She shook her head. “No Bridge today. Better things than Bridge today,” she said. Auntie Ella came out, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, and stood beside his mother. She had never met Bridge, heard of him certainly, but this was her second visit to the city, the first being years ago around the time Ben was first born. “Mama, I really think something’s wrong with him,” said Ben.
“I agree. He’s crazy. He’s a drunk. He’s selfish—” “But mama, he’s my uncle and it’s Christmas in about two days!” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I am not having this conversation with you about that man. Come away from there now.” Auntie Ella put her hand on Fiona’s shoulder. They quietly had words with one another. His mother made a face and hissed the word “no” loud enough for Ben to hear. Ella moved toward him and his mother grabbed her sleeve. Ella shook her off and kept walking. “Who’s in there?” She asked Ben when she reached him.
“Uncle Bridge,” he said. “We need to see him?” Ella asked.
“Yes.” “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s go.” They walked toward the little house. Ben’s mother, frustrated, stood where she was and said, “Ella, that man is—” “He may be one hundred things, Fi, but Ben is worried, and I believe in following concern.” With that they continued up the path toward Bridge’s house. It was hard to see inside the first of the two rooms until Ben opened the curtains. Allowing the late afternoon sun in revealed the shattered look of the place. Beside the front door was a rusty folding chair, catercorner to it, against the south wall, a small disheveled bed. An old dining room table took up most of the rest of the space in the next room, a pile of clothes and linens in the middle of it. Along the walls, above everything else were the bottles on shelves around the room, like trophies. Bridge lay passed out on the floor beside the bed. One shoe was half off his foot and his shirt was pulled up above his belly. The sun shone directly on him. Ben knelt and touched his shoulder, causing Bridge (still asleep) to turn over, smearing vomit across his face and the side of his mouth. Ella picked up a towel and gave it to Ben then sat in the folding chair and looked around the room. Bridge woke up and spat out what remained in his mouth as Ben cleaned his face. Staring down at the mess beneath him, he ran a hand over his uncombed head before sitting up. “Let me help you, Uncle Bridge.”
Bridge grunted, pushed Ben away. Auntie Ella shook her head. “Let the boy help you. He troubled himself to come find you. Let him help you.” Bridge blinked and squinted at her. “Who you?” he asked. “Uncle Bridge, this is Auntie Ella. Come down from Saint Louis for Christmas.” Uncle Bridge grunted, perhaps ashamed of himself to some degree, for he gently took the towel from Ben and began to clean his face, then he cleaned the mess on the floor. Ben reached for a shirt on the table and began to get his uncle out of his old one. “Saint Louis,” Bridge said mostly to himself. “Rough town. You come down for Christmas, huh?
“I did,” she said. “My last Christmas dinner was more than ten years ago. After that couldn’t get Christmas dinner nowhere.” Ella asked, “Why not just knock on the door there and ask to come in?” Bridge threw his head back and laughed. And it almost seemed like it was a funny joke, he laughed at the idea so completely. Ben caught himself laughing too until he looked over at Ella and saw the angry look on her face. Ben cleared his throat. “That woman in there would roast me alive,” said Bridge. “I’m surprised she ain’t put a match to this place out here yet. Much as she hate me.” Ben asked, “How come y’all don’t get along? You and my mother?” Bridge grunted and reached under the bed for a flask, “Ask her,” he said, draining it.
“She ain’t telling,” Ben replied. “I ain’t neither.” Ella stood to look at the bottles. “Well, whatever it is it can be put aside,” she said. “All kind of changes going on in the world. There might as well be changes here too.” Bridge stiffened. “Martin Luther King, that’s what you talking about? The changes?”
“That’s right,” said Ella. Bridge turned his head and looked at the multitude of bottles above his bed. He stood and lifted one from the shelf, a clear glass one with a faded orange label. It slipped from his hands and he scrambled after it, looking like some wounded petrel falling from the sky. He landed on his behind, catching the thing before it broke. A little shaky, with Ben’s help he stood up and held the bottle out to Ella, made her take it in her hands. “That’s my first real drunk,” he said. “I drank before then, but never like that. I got that bottle ten months after I come back from the war. I remember even the way it felt going down my throat. Like relief. So if you talking about change, it ain’t gone happen in this place.” Ben had never known his uncle to talk about his drinking this way, telling its history, talking about its effect. He almost wanted to stop him. “That woman hates me so much ain’t no let up in it. She right to, in her way,” said Bridge. “She’s stubborn,” said Ella, who felt she knew Fiona as well as she did herself. “Nobody in the world can tell me it’s right to keep a man out here, sleeping in this little—” “I deserve it! Didn’t you hear me, woman?”
Ben and Ella stared at Bridge. “You want to know why I sit out here and torture myself with that house with those people in it? I could be free of it, go anywhere! Because I did it. I beat him bloody. They seen him with my woman. Why, I was gone marry that girl.” “What?” asked Ella. “Beat who? When?” But Ben knew the moment he heard Bridge say it. He could feel the truth of it in his belly, though he still asked Bridge to repeat himself. “Did what, Uncle Bridge?” “Your father! What you think? Your father!” Bridge stood up. “We was fighting. We always fought. Since we was little boys, we fought. And I always won.” In that moment Ben remembered Uncle Bridge used to say that he and his father fought each other hard but were true brothers through and through. “Couldn’t cross one of us,” he’d said to Ben once, “Or you’d have to deal with the other one.” A numbness began to climb Ben’s feet. He could barely breathe. “That’s the drink talking, I think,” Ben said. “Like you always say.” But Bridge looked at him with eyes that held a depth of truth and regret. “Put him in the hospital,” Bridge whispered. “He come home, doing better, recovering. Stepped off the porch to take a walk to the car, fell over and died. From injuries, the doctor said. Law said nobody could prove that.” “You didn’t! You didn’t!” Ben cried. “That wasn’t you. That was somebody else.”
“Ask your mama,” said Bridge. “Look in her eyes and ask her.” Auntie Ella stood and caught Ben’s shoulders. “Let’s go,” she said. They walked back to the house. Ben’s mother turned from the stove as they entered the kitchen. She seemed to know something had happened, maybe it was the look on Ben’s face or the look on Ella’s, because, nearly running, she left the kitchen to go to her bedroom. Auntie Ella followed, calling her name. Ben slid down to the floor and sat where he’d been standing. He could feel his breath going in and out of his lungs, but he was so empty it was like he wasn’t there. There were no feelings where his feelings should be. His mother and Ella were in the bedroom. He heard a lighter snap open and smelled cigarette smoke drift into the kitchen. “How could you let him stay?” Auntie Ella asked. “For years like that, knowing?”
Ben’s mother said nothing for a while. Her eyes were probably looking at her hands, at the bed, at the window—that’s what she did when she was wordless, looked at everything but people. After awhile she said, “Ray met that girl when we were downtown. It was around Easter and the weather was bright, everything shined. We were coming out of Woolworths and the two of them were on the sidewalk looking at the shop windows.” She paused. “Then Ray saw her. When he looked at her, Ella, he was like light. Like the sun. He left me in that instant. Didn’t matter that he was standing right there beside me. He was gone.” Then she sobbed, tried to talk through her tears though none of what she said sounded like words anymore. Someone got up and shut the bedroom door and then there was the mumble of voices beyond it.
It was getting to be evening. Clarice would be home soon with all her stories and gossip about the people at church, and Ben knew he didn’t want to hear any of it. He didn’t want to have to talk about what happened either. He got himself off the floor and stood over the cookies on the kitchen table, mindlessly pressing a thumb into one of them, thinking about what to do. A bunch of his friends were downtown. He decided to go be with them though he already knew he wouldn’t tell them any of this. This was a story that would remain untold. Probably even his sister never knew this story. After all, it had taken him fifteen years to learn anything about it. Auntie Ella hadn’t known—the one person who knew his mother better than anybody. Standing there, he already knew he would never forgive any of them. Not his father for cheating, not his mother for keeping the whole lie in place, and especially not Bridge. Ben took his jacket from the coat rack and walked out the front door.
Though he planned to head downtown, Ben ended up at Arnold’s house, standing in front of the shed in the Ewings's back yard. He didn’t know why he was there. Arnold had said his family was visiting his grandma up in Monroe on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Nobody was home. All the same, Ben opened the door to go inside.
At the back Mr. Ewing’s tall workbench stood squeezed between two walls. He walked toward it, intending to pull out the two folding chairs behind it that leaned against the wall, chairs Ben and Arnold used to sit in the back yard during the summer months. Ben figured he’d sit here until something made sense.
To reach the chairs, he bent down to move the two milk crates, full of random things, out of the way. As he pulled out the second one he remembered the “man tools.” He stared at the crate at first, unsure of himself then he moved quickly with certainty, removing the clump of old rags from the crate, the fishing line, the cigars, the girlie magazines, and the pair of old work gloves until he came to the whiskey. There it was like it had been in the spring. The bottle caught the last little bits of daylight from the open door and shone at him like a gold tooth.
Ben let the bottle rest in his hands. He unscrewed the cap and let the smell of whiskey take up all the room in the little shed. Then he set it on the floor and looked for a shot glass. For some seconds he thought about where one might be. Maybe in the other crate, or on one of the ledges on the walls. He pulled out Mr. Ewing’s toolbox, looked in the old army sack hanging from the wall. There it was all alone in there.
As he pulled the glass out, cleared it from the lip of the bag, it slipped from his hands and he scrambled after it, managing to snap his fingers around it just before it landed on the cement floor. He held the glass tight so as not to lose it again, then he knelt on the floor and filled it with whiskey.
The first sip tasted of fire, and for half a second Ben wondered whether or not he should have any more. He’d only had the littlest bit, the amount in the shot glass looked the same. He figured another sip wouldn’t hurt, but after he set it down again without another thought, he picked up the shot glass and drank the rest. Then he sat on the floor and looked at the bottle. Somehow this was what he’d come there for. Somehow this was enough, feeling like he was flying and the world was below him and he was free.
S. Evan Stubblefield is a third-generation Angeleno, an English instructor, a student of meditation, and a consummate eavesdropper, who blames her love of story on threads of unfinished family gossip. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and an Elizabeth George grant recipient, she writes to uncover the inexpressible connection between history, ancestors, and the roots of African American culture. In previous lives she's taught young people, studied journalism, worked as an editor, and written billboard and radio ads. These days she's at work on her first novel, a book about love. Her work has previously appeared in past-ten, Minerva Rising, Woman, Ohana Anthology, and Reader's Break Anthology.