an excerpt from the novel She Rises Crying
December of 2008 had been extremely cold, down to four degrees Fahrenheit just a few days earlier, but then the temperatures had done this bazaar spike, and shot into the sixties, with a sunny sky. I know they call a cold spell in summer blackberry winter; is there a name for a warm spot in the middle of winter? There has to be, I just don’t know it. It felt like springtime. My boy Hunter actually wore shorts when we did Christmas at Mom and Dad’s new retirement house on the lake—they called it a lake, but it was a big dozer-dug pond stocked with fish and ducks.
I was getting tea, and there was a rattling knock on the kitchen screen door, and Dad opened it, and there stood my brother Hoodoo wearing a puffy, baby blue ski coat. It was filthy. The right side of the collar was ripped, and flopped over flat, deflated of its stuffing.
Dad stepped aside and let Hoodoo come into the kitchen. He was visibly stoned, carrying a wrinkled white bag of McDonald’s food. Dad asked him, “What are you into these days?” and he said, “You know. Same old, same old,” and we all let it drop at that.
He sat on the living room couch and ate from the wrappers, while the turkey sat already on the dining room table sending its aroma through the house. Mom clattered around in the kitchen finishing up the mashed potatoes and dressing and yams and green bean casserole. Dad filled the awkward silence that had swirled in with Hoodoo like the cool lake air with chatter about the new TV he’d gotten, the one on which he was at that moment playing a new DVD of A Christmas Story.
I sat beside Hoodoo on the couch. I caught a whiff of his body odor. He ate his sloppy burger and nodded as he chewed, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Every time he moved, his coat hissed. The greasy smell of McDonald’s mixed with his unwashed stink and the aromas of turkey—sage overpowering the other spices—from the kitchen. The kids were shouting and playing down in the basement. Hoodoo had on someone’s discarded tennis shoes with the K-Swiss crest on the side. The leather was dry and cracking like a dead riverbed. Too big for his feet. Dirty toes curled up like elf shoes, brown-green, shoes found beside a lawn mower in a backyard shed.
In the kitchen Mom said, “Anna Lee, would you tell the kids it’s time to eat?”
My sister Anna Lee was setting the table in the dining space. She said to her husband, “Ridvan, tell the kids to wash up.”
Ridvan stood, still watching the movie until the scene in which Ralph discovers the secret message is drink Ovaltine was over,then threaded his way around the ottoman, the coffee table, our legs as we pulled them in to make room for him. He had a huge smile on his face. He’d never seen the movie before.
Hoodoo shoved several French fries into his mouth and wiped his hand on his dirty blue jeans as he chewed. His ski coat was shiny with rubbed-in grime along the underside the forearms. The cuffs looked like he’d been using them to wipe down truck stop toilets.
Dad noticed Hoodoo’s filthy coat the same time I did. He said jovially, “Take off your coat and stay awhile,” and slapped Hoodoo’s shoulder. It made a loud slapping whack.
From the dining table Anna Lee looked in at Hoodoo. She didn’t know I was watching her. The look on her face as she stared at the back of Hoodoo’s dirty, matted head was disgust.
“I’m good,” Hoodoo said.
Mom hunched over and dragged the piano bench from the living room. Arissa and Angela perched on it, both eyeing the mashed potatoes. Hoodoo sat at the table with us, and we ate. Wherever he had come from, he’d shaved. His fingers were yellowed at the tips. His body odor was strong. Even at the dinner table he didn’t take off the coat. He reached the ratty, stinking cuffs out over the food.
After dinner, Sarah, Anna Lee and Mom cleaned up and put the leftovers away while us men fell into chairs and on the couch in the living room. Dad put on It’s a Wonderful Life and I stared at it not really watching, dipping in and out of a turkey stupor. The kids pounded back down the steps to the basement.
I dozed, dipped in and out, still aware of the women talking in the kitchen. At one point I woke to Sarah hovering over me from behind, holding a spoon down to my mouth. “Try this,” she said, and I did. “Your mom has a new ice cream maker,” she said. “This one’s black walnut. She made a bourbon vanilla too. I don’t think the kids will like it. I don’t like it, it’s too strong.” I tasted the ice cream. I said, “It’s good.” She said, “Isn’t it?” She licked the spoon clean and was gone back to the kitchen. I rubbed my tongue against my palate, which was now coated with a thick residue from the ice cream. The television chattered. I nodded back off, this time into a real sleep.
By the time I awoke again, the drama was well under way. I’m not sure how it all went down, but what I do know is that Hoodoo had done something to or around, or made some gesture toward Arissa—or he hadn’t; he kept swearing he hadn’t done anything and he had no idea why Anna Lee was freaking out—and it set Anna Lee into a fit. I heard Dad in the kitchen later say, “She just went ape [S-word].” Dad hadn’t used that kind of language that I was aware of since he’d gotten saved in 1978.
What awoke me in the first place was Hoodoo plopping himself beside me on the couch, his coat hissing. His cheeks were tight in outrage—mock outrage?—at some injustice being done to him. He looked at me and said, “Jesus,” and then stared at the TV. His left knee bounced up and down. Then his right knee started bouncing too. Both his leg bounced, his coat swished and hissed, sounded like a dog scratching his ear without stopping.
Ridvan sat staring at the television also. It was like he was entranced, he stared so hard. I could see immediately that there was something going on between Hoodoo and Anna Lee and Ridvan saw it as his place to keep out.
Dad stomped from the guest bedroom and out of the house through the kitchen door. He got into his truck at the side of the house and drove away. A few minutes later his truck slid across the living room window, circling the other side of the lake, moving silently toward the front gate.
A strange stillness filled the small upstairs space. Someone had changed the TV to ESPN. It was five the evening. The Celtics and Lakers were getting ready to play.
I said to Ridvan, “You watch basketball?”
He nodded yes. “Who doesn’t like basketball?” he said.
“I can’t stand basketball,” Hoodoo said. “I like football.”
“Football is for meatheads,” Ridvan said.
“College football,” Hoodoo said. “Not pro.”
Ridvan looked at Hoodoo, said nothing, then he looked back at the TV.
Hoodoo shut up and sat staring at the TV, his knees bouncing up and down like pistons.
I think now one of the main reasons Anna Lee married Ridvan was for security. He is big and ugly, and has a scar that at least looks like it is the result of some violence—which apparently women find in some way attractive—and we all believe he had killed people in the fighting over there. He looked and carried himself like a man not to be trifled with. She’d been a single woman living alone when they’d met.
I got up and went to the kitchen to dig around and get a piece of turkey out of the fridge. As I nibbled I looked at the pictures on the fridge: a couple from Mom and Dad’s church, dressed in red for a Christmas card glamour shot; an invitation to a get together the previous day at someone’s house on the lake; a card with Frosty the Snowman and a sock monkey together like best friends; scattered photographs of the grandkids going back years, the oldest ones curled and dirty; one family picture done at Olin Mills two Christmases ago, all of us posed and smiling, absent Hoodoo. Hoodoo was nowhere on the fridge. A stranger looking at Mom and Dad’s fridge would have seen no evidence of their eldest son.
I asked, “What the heck happened in there?” and she shook her head like I shouldn’t be asking. She busied herself with putting slivers of pumpkin pie onto white teacup saucers. She scraped thin shavings of her homemade ice cream—it was too hard to scoop—from a square Tupperware tub and distributed them equally onto the pie slices.
She hurried to the basement steps and called the kids, and they rumbled up the steps and swirled around the plates there on the counter, grabbing and talking all at once. Angela said, “Can we take them downstairs?” and as I said, “I don’t know. Can you?” As she was correcting herself—“May we?—Mom said, “Sure, just watch the plates, they’re glass.” Off the kids went back down the stairs, Arissa with them. She didn’t seem shaken or nervous.
I said, “Arissa seems fine.” I lowered my voice and asked, “What did Hoodoo do?”
Mom shook her head again. “Later,” she said. She said, “You want black walnut, bourbon vanilla, or a little of both?”
Dad came back in the kitchen door. His jaw was set. He stalked past me and Mom.
Mom said, “What are you going to do, Al?”
He didn’t answer.
He stomped straight into the living room, and stood looming over Hoodoo on the couch. His voice boomed out, “Get up.”
I stepped into the living room and stopped.
Hoodoo stood up and said, “You know she’s been nuts since she went all Muslim—” He looked at Ridvan and said, “No offense, but you know what I mean.”
I glanced at Ridvan. He stared at the TV, acted like he hadn’t heard a thing.
Then out of nowhere, Dad sucker punched Hoodoo in the gut, knocking the air out of him in a loud bellowing grunt-yell. Hoodoo hunched over and tried to wheeze a breath. Dad grabbed his coat shoulder with one hand. He grabbed a fist full of Hoodoo’s greasy hair in the other. Now Ridvan stood, but didn’t move toward the scuffle. He didn’t say anything. I swear I remember him putting his hands in his pockets. I don’t know if my memory is right, so much was going on. I seem to remember that he slid his hands into his pockets.
Dad guided Hoodoo to the front door. He pushed him against the wall. He called back to me, “Open the door, Tony.”
“This is what you’ve wanted—” Hoodoo took a breath and kept talking into the wall, “to do all day, isn’t it?”
I walked over and opened the door. I said, “What’s going on?”
Hoodoo said, “You’re going to fucking believe everything that bitch tells you, and not even hear my side of the story?”
Dad said, “Shut up.”
“Typical,” Hoodoo said. “You fucking bastard.”
Dad walked Hoodoo to the edge of the mossy brick porch. He launched him out over the four steps. Hoodoo’s left foot landed on the third step down. His right foot landed on the mossy brick walk. He stumbled down the sloping yard, almost regained his balance. He toppled onto his side and rolled all the way to the ditch by the road. He stood up and the elbow of his baby blue coat had a green-brown smear. The sun was almost completely down. The streetlight reflections in the lake stabbed eternally down. Hoodoo stepped backward onto the street, stood in the orange glow of the streetlight.
He said, “Come on, Dad. You’re not going to hear my side?”
Dad said, “I’m done with you.” He said, “We all are. Leave.”
Again Hoodoo whined, “Come on, Dad.” Sounded like he was ready to cry. I had never in my life heard that tone of voice come out of Hoodoo. It unnerved me.
Dad said, “If you every come back I’ll have you arrested.”
Dad shut the door and locked it and went to his bedroom. Mom followed him.
I watched Hoodoo out the window. He walked across the road and out onto the neighbor’s little dock. He stayed there for a very long time. I sat and watched the ball game with Ridvan. I stood every now and then and glanced out. He was there, sitting on the dock, waiting.
Mom and Dad came out of their bedroom.
I said, “He’s still out there. On the dock.”
Dad said, “Long as he’s not on my property.”
We watched basketball without paying attention to it, without talking.
Eventually I got up and looked out again and Hoodoo wasn’t on the dock anymore.
I’m thinking that the Christmas of 2008 was when Anna Lee decided that Ridvan had abandoned his family to the wolves—to Hoodoo—had somehow betrayed them. He did not come raging to her aid—or, in this case, Arissa’s—the way she had always expected he would. He sat and stared at the TV. He did nothing.
I think this is so because her anger for the rest of the evening was an almost palpable poison, flowing silently at Ridvan and no one else, as if he and not Hoodoo had been the perpetrator of whatever unspoken thing had been done to Arissa. The girl seemed to be blissfully unaware that she’d been the victim of anything at all. It turned out Hoodoo had only stopped her in the hallway as she was leaving the bathroom and he was going in and told her she’d grown into a real woman and was ready for a real boyfriend.
“Did he touch her?” I asked Sarah on the way home later.
“It wasn’t so much what he did or said,” Sarah said, “but the way he said it.”
From the back Angela said, “Your brother is a creeper, dad.”
After Dad threw Hoodoo out, Mom tried hard to get things back to some sense of holiday spirit. She called out in a cheery voice, “Time for the kids to open gifts?” Anna Lee didn’t celebrate Christmas of course, but Mom prevailed on her to at least let the grandparents give presents to the kids.
The kids opened their gifts from Mom and Dad and said their thanks. The atmosphere did not return to normal. We left shortly after the gifts.
Anna Lee was angry with her husband, but I couldn’t stop thinking of dad, how he’d had to throw his own son, his firstborn boy, out of the house. Sarah and I were having our own trouble with Hunter; as a matter of fact, he ended up in jail on drug charges not too long after that.
It was Saturday, mid-morning. I was in my office alone, settling into my desk to read another used novel I’d picked up, called Border Dance, to keep from cracking open my Bible and writing a sermon. The book hadn’t been bound well and the pages were breaking away in clumps and one by one, sliding out. I started throwing them away as I read. Page by page the novel shrank, its past gone, its future dwindling as the protagonist’s many options became present choice, until the story would be forever unchangeably what it was, and the book disappeared.
There was a sermon in that. I put down the half-gone novel and began to write on my legal pad: I’m reading a novel called B. D. (tell story, 5-8 minutes) the novel is falling apart (describe book, take book for visual, 2-3 min.) our lives are like that novel, the past falling away, the time in front of us growing ever shorter—Pslm 90:9 life as a tale told (Shakespeare ref.) Pslm 102:4,11; 103: 15-16 days like grass… here today, gone tomorrow (15 minutes, example, illustration)—end with Eccl. 12:1 (What about many possible lives twined by the present like a spinning wheel into single thread of a life? A different sermon. Save it.) I stopped and leaned back in my chair. This is how I’d been coasting for quite a while. I could make those notes, along with a story or two, last me the obligatory twenty-five to thirty minutes; my sermon was written, Sunday morning taken care of. Now I only needed something for Sunday night, which was even less formal, easier to BS through.Maybe I’d continue with the falling-apart-novel conceit, even though I knew it would be worn mighty thin by the end of the first sermon. It was thin from the beginning. I’d go with the many-options-to-single-thread conceit for the evening service.
The phone rang. The church secretary Stacey wasn’t in, so I answered it. It was a police officer introducing himself. Just like Anna Lee had when the officer called about Mom and Dad’s accident, my first assumption was that it was finally the call about Hoodoo, he’d finally managed to kill himself. But the officer was downtown, confirming the second thought that rushed through my head: something with Hunter. “We’re holding him here in the city courthouse,” the officer told me. “Will you be posting bond today?’
“Why isn’t he calling me?” I asked, immediately on the defensive for my boy, wondering if they were mistreating him, not giving him his one phone call or whatever.
“He didn’t want to talk to you,” the officer said. “It’s not unusual when they’re this young. They’re embarrassed and ashamed. Which is a good sign. It means they aren’t habituated.”
“What do I do?” I asked him.
He briefly told me what most families in this situation do—which I understood from his tone meant families who had resources to post bond, hire good lawyers—“but it’s up to you, sir,” he said. “I cannot advise you.”
I went and posted bond and got him out.
Then we were alone together in my car again. The place where we talk, or where I try to talk and he bides his time. I said, “What the [H] happened?” The first time I’d ever cussed in front of him. I didn’t cuss anywhere for that matter.
He said, “One of my good friends wore a wire on me.”
I said, “Some kind of good friends you have.”
But, I thought, this might be the thing that scares him straight. Then I realized he could be going to prison for fifteen years, twenty years. His life could be shot, sunk right here before he even pushed away from shore. I wanted to pull the car over and hold his head in my arms and cry.
My son. My baby boy.
He said, “This is big, dad.”
“You don’t even want to know.”
He was right. The Sunday Mail-Gazette the next day told the whole sordid story. One young man made a deal with the police, wore a wire and brought down what the paper called an “extended network of drug dealers.” The paper listed seventeen names and said the number of minors, whose names would not be printed, brought the number of up to twenty-three. The article went on to praise the hard work of the Meadow Green Sheriff and his men. I trudged like a zombie through my sermon Sunday morning. Everyone knew. Back at home we were silent around the house. Angela asked Hunter if he wanted to play Xbox360 with her. He got up and followed her downstairs. He was in shock.
The next day he sat sad and chastised at the kitchen table while I called the three lawyers in my congregation and all three told me Larry Campbell was the best lawyer around for this kind of thing. He could really work the system. I wanted Hunter to learn a lesson, yes, but I didn’t want him locked away for years, so that he comes out a crippled human being, his life ruined. I called and got him Larry Campbell.
What had happened: Hunter had been selling pot, cocaine, and sometimes meth, according to him mostly just to keep his own stash up and make a little walking around money. “I almost never sold meth,” he said. “That stuff’s dangerous.” The guy who had worn a wire on him was the brother of a prep cook Hunter worked with. The brother was there when Hunter was arrested. The police went right into the restaurant, straight back to the kitchen, and took him out the front in handcuffs while people stared over their roasted eggplant with mozzarella rolled by Hunter’s very own hands in back. He was fired, not that it makes any difference at this point.
In a strange way, the drug bust made him open up to me a little. Not a lot, but enough to give me hope. It was like this bust was what brought him into the world of adults, made him speak eye-to-eye with me, as one man to another man instead of a boy to his father. He said to me one afternoon, “I feel sorry for that guy,” talking about the one who’d worn the wire. “Why?” I asked. “He’s going to have to go into hiding. Somebody’s going to come after him. Not me. But somebody.”
I didn’t know if he was showing real empathy for the guy, who must have felt his situation was hopeless if he agreed to wear a wire on all his friends, or if he was telling me of his intentions once he was finished serving his time. I’d never known him to be violent.
Larry Campbell turned out to be as good as his reputation. Even with the prior, since he was still a minor, Hunter was able to plead a maximum ten-year sentence down to a single year. What’s more, Campbell got the sentence set at twelve months, which meant Hunter could serve it at county—as opposed to one year, which he would have had to serve at a Federal institution somewhere out of state. It was the best possible deal Hunter could have gotten under the circumstances, and it was going much worse for those of his friends who didn’t have good lawyers.
After the sentencing, I stood and hugged Hunter and said, “Be strong.” His eyes were teary, and he said, “Pray for me.”
My fear is that Hunter hasn’t learned anything at all. This is his first big step toward wrecking his life for good. Maybe my perspective is warped because I grew up with Hoodoo for a brother.
Sarah snotted and wept into her tissue paper and almost hyperventilated. I sat her down behind the wooden barrier and held her shoulders as Hunter was led away in handcuffs through the heavy locked door, behind which we cannot go. That’s where he is today.
Hoodoo never showed up for a family gathering again. As a matter of fact, I only saw him one more time before he left town—for good as far as I know; I don’t know if the police are really looking for him down in Florida, or if he’s alive to find. The kids and Sarah and I were driving through downtown Meadow Green one evening after eating at Shoney’s on George’s Crossing Road, just at the gloaming, and saw him, homeless and filthy. We stopped at a light heading toward downtown and he was in an alley heading down to Low Street, just standing there in his ragged clothes, different clothes, the blue coat gone.
I pointed to him and said, “That’s my brother Hoodoo.”
Sarah and the kids stared at him.
“Is he mentally challenged, Dad?” Angela asked me. “Miss Nessa says most homeless people are mentally challenged.”
“He’s not homeless,” Hunter said.
Sarah said, “He is too homeless.”
“No,” I said. “Hoodoo is spiritually challenged.” I leaned up and made eye contact with Hunter in the rearview mirror. I said, “That’s what drugs will get you.”
Hunter stared out the window pensively the rest of the way home. I felt joy, felt like this had been the most amazing teachable moment, like God himself had orchestrated it to help me save my son’s life. Sarah and I lay in bed that night and prayed earnestly, believing. We felt very close. We even made gentle, hopeful love. Funny how you will grasp for any sign that your boy has seen the light. That after all the weeping and asking God has relented and will finally intervene on your behalf, save your child.
Looking at Hoodoo in the alley, Sarah said, “Aren’t you going to help him?”
“He wants my money,” I said. “What he doesn’t want is my help.”
That was the last time I saw Hoodoo. It has been over five years and not so much as a phone call.
The light changed and I drove on.
Vic Sizemore‘s short fiction is published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, Fiction Fix, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Rock & Sling and Relief Journal. HIs fiction has been long listed for the Walker Percy Prize, short listed for the Sherwood Anderson Award and the Editors’ Award at Florida Review, won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.