Family Values


My mother is dead, gone to her reward, and I think about her often. She used to sing "Precious Lord" while cooking grits, home-made biscuits, cheese eggs, and fried catfish. Thinking about it makes me hungry. It is a good memory. She was my mother though I entered this world through another woman's womb. She believed in God, early and late. I don't know what she thought about abortion, same-sex marriage, and the religious right, but I suppose they were subsumed under the umbrella, "Baby, people do what they have to do to sleep at night." We didn't talk about family values, the slogan, but we talked about love, the possibility, the angst, and the fruit. I am her child. I don't know what family values are, but I know what they are not.

Kenon Washington doesn't like the smell of mop water. It's the dirt and grease, but mostly it's the ammonia. Miss Petrie's Ammonia Water. It makes him sick to his stomach. Vomit. He'd like to -- right here, right now -- on the kitchen floor of JackSeafood WheelHouse Restaurant. Splat! But he can't, and it's just as well. He'd have to clean it.

This is lower Alabama. It is midday in the middle of 1977.

The heat helps his mind wander.

Folks don't say Mobile heat; they say Mobile hot. In the dead of winter children play without shirts or shoes. Snow is a rumor here, something old people lie about: "Hey, Charlie, remember in '58 when it snowed a foot?" Don't lie Charlie. Ain't but two seasons in Mobile: warm winter and hot summer. People in L.A. don't know what hot is. Come to Alabama; come today. All your clothes -- especially drawers! -- drenched in sticky sweat. Wipe the sweat from your eyes, curse, you'd better wipe again. Mobile hot is different from L.A. hot. Or New York City hot. It's too hot to sleep. Too hot for sex. Too hot not to be angry. Put deodorant on each hour, or bang your fist on the dashboard because you forgot it. Wipe the sweat from your burning eyes. Change a flat tire on a busy street. Count the blood-red faces, the dirty looks -- the insulting fingers. "Get that piece of crap off the road." It's oppressive heat; the kind that makes old folks lose their religion: "Don't eyeball me, you countrified wench." Mobile hot. Your hair mats to your head, your upper thighs chafe, your feet stink, and you dream about slapping the taste out of Mr. Jack's mouth.

Ah, yes ... slap the boss -- but it's just a daydream. Mr. Jack has nothing to fear. Kenon is 16, and he hasn't thrown a punch in anger since he was three. Too bookish. Mopping makes you daydream.

Besides, Kenon needs an advance against his wages.

It's 12:45. Mr. Jack walks through the kitchen door. "Like being in hell with the lid screwed down," he says, frowning, wiping sweat from his round, red jowls with a filthy hankerchief. His palms are sticky. "It gets worse every year," he says, pulling a stool down from the table. He sits near the mopping boy. "Mobile hot is a awful."

"Afternoon, Mr. Jack."

"Afternoon, son." He glances at the boy, then immediately looks at the floor.

"Have you got that spot over there by the oven?" Mr. Jack points to an area that Kenon has mopped.

"No, sir," answers Kenon, "I was going to finish over there."

"Well, you might as well get it while you're thinking on it," says the owner, sitting, his butt too big for the stool.

"You're right." Kenon places the mop in the bucket and guides it near the oven, steering with the mop handle.

The fat man sits; the skinny boy mops.

Oh, my ... how he mops! Long, powerful strokes. Ammonia be damned. Swoosh. Swoosh. Mop water on pant legs. Push. Scratch that linoleum. Pull. Push. Pull. Like a crazed jailhouse trustee. Swoosh. A thing of beauty. Drop it. Sling it. Push. Pull. Mopping like he wants something.

"Kenon?"

"Yes."

"When you get done here, I need you to get them boxes out of my van." He wipes his forehead. "Easter, I mean to say, Fourth of July stuff." He's been drinking. "It's so hot ..."

"All right," says Kenon. He's done except for the spot where his boss sits.

Got to ask him.

It is 12:57. Mr. Jack will go into his office soon. He can't be disturbed there. The cooks come at two, everybody else, a half hour later. Got to ask him now. The restaurant opens at three. Then it's too late. He'll be glad handing. And drinking Jack Daniels. It'll be too late.

Ask him.

"Mr. Jack, I was wondering if--," his voice breaks off.

"Yeah?"

Do this.

"I was wondering if I might," he hesitates, "just this once--, " and again he fails.

"You in trouble, son?"

"No, no. Nothing like that."

Kenon glances at the clock; it reads 12:58.

Panic?

Bravery?

"Mr. Jack, I need forty-five dollars. An advance, I mean to say. I don't like asking, but my momma's birthday is Tuesday, this coming Tuesday. I already have twenty, but I -- well, it's just not ... well, that's not enough. I want to get her this ceiling fan." Kenon looks down at the clock. "That's why I'm asking."

There, he had said it. Not as well as he had rehearsed it. But he had said it. Got it all out.

There is silence.

Kenon stands, his chin rests on his knuckles, the mop as a prop. Mr. Jack sits, his arms folded, his face blank, like a man alone with his thoughts.

"We pay first and fifteenth," Mr. Jack says.

"But the fifteenth is Thursday, and my momma's birthday is Tuesday," his voice higher than he intended.

"Can't do it, son." He stands.

"It's a nice fan," Kenon blurts.

"If I do it for one --."

"It's got tulip shades," Kenon interrupts, "and light oak blades."

"I'm not gonna give you the money."

Mr. Jack walks to Kenon, and places his hand on the boy's shoulder. Kenon stares at the mop bucket. Mr. Jack says, "Kenon, I don't just make up these rules for nothing. Rules teach discipline. If you knew that your momma's birthday was coming up, you should've been putting aside a little something every paycheck till you had enough. See what I'm saying? If I bail you boys out of trouble every time you get in trouble, am I helping? Think about it, son. Now, you tell me, whose fault is it that you don't have enough money?"

"Mine," said Kenon, but he thought, "What is forty-five dollars to you?"

"Good," said Mr. Jack, reaching for his wallet, "I knew you could think this through."

Mr. Jack opens his wallet. Kenon sees an inch thick wad of bills, with a fifty on the end. Mr. Jack pulls a photograph of his daughter, then closes his wallet. Kenon frowns.

"Son, you see this little girl. She's my heart. Ain't nothing in this world I wouldn't do for her. Every dime I make is for her. Whether she wants it or needs it, she gets it. Always been that way. God her to me. She's in Law School. Nine thousand a year. I don't miss a dime, 'cause she's my baby. See what I'm saying? I give you an advance and you up and quit on me. Might as well be taking food out of her mouth. This is hard medicine for a young man, I know. But family is first. Is always first."

The hand feels heavy on Kenon's shoulder.

You don't work her like a dog.

"A man ought to get what he earns, anything else is charity. You know what charity is don't you, son?"

The young boy stares at the floor and says nothing.

The telephone rings. Mr. Jack pats Kenon's back -- then goes to the office. Kenon looks at the clock, it has no meaning for him. He is aware, for the first time, of his wet feet and ankles. He looks at the mop bucket, the smell of ammonia returns. Miss Petrie's Ammonia Water.

He mops, though the floor is clean. Again, his mind wanders. He thinks about ceiling fans, ideas that die, momma's birthdays, unfairness, things that spin and make you dizzy, money -- having and not having it, a present he once saw wrapped with newspaper, and more.

And then he sees it. On the kitchen table, between two upside down stools, sits Mr. Jack's wallet, bulging -- yes, fat! -- with money.

Do it.

Mr. Jack is talking on the telephone. Arguing receipts. Who will know? Kenon walks over. He picks it up, puts it down. It's a sin. Mr. Jack is in his office. It's a trap? No, he's too drunk to trap. Works me like a dog. Kenon grabs the wallet. Holds it. Twists it. Momma said don't steal. He hears Mr. Jack on the telephone. No, no, not a trap. Good luck, instead. What's forty-five dollars to him?

So easy.

He opens it.

It is 4:34, and Kenon is hanging white cardboard American flags from the roof of JackSeafood WheelHouse Restaurant. He is sweating. And his eyes are red from crying.

Mr. Jack stands beneath him -- Kenon did not see him approach. He orders Kenon to come down.

Face-to-face.

"Son, have I ever mistreated you?"

Kenon does not answer.

"I count my money every evening," Mr. Jack says, without any hint of anger. "I'm missing a fifty, Kenon. I know you took it."

"I didn't take your money, Mr. Jack."

"Yes, you did."

"No, sir. I thought about it, but I didn't do it."

"Give me my money, son."

"I swear I don't have it, Mr. Jack."

"You wanna go to jail, boy?" The man's forehead is slick with sweat.

"No, sir."

"Then hand my money to me."

"I don't have it."

Mr. Jack, his chest rising and dropping violently, points a finger at Kenon's face and says, "I'm keeping your last paycheck -- all of it!"

Kenon freezes, stares. He has the vague thought to hit, swing, push, to share the mounting hurt, to beat away the unfairness -- to somehow clean it, but he doesn't know what to do, what to say, only that something is wrong, very wrong, that he has been wronged, that he should push back, hit back -- but he can only cry, a single tear stream, a sign of weakness, the thing he didn't want to show to that man.

"If you're here in ten minutes, you'll be talking to the police."

Kenon runs.

It's night, almost night. Kenon, his face pointing upward, lays near-naked on a brown sofa. Sweating like a thief. An old fan, small and almost useless, whines from the floor.

Across town. Mr. Jack and his wife lay in bed. He is watching television; she is trying to remember what she forgot to tell him. It's a rerun of Seinfeld. Kramer stole some lobsters. And then ... "Jack," she shouts, "it just came to me." "What?" his tone harsher than he wanted. "What do you want, Peggy?" "I just remembered what I wanted to tell you." He watches Kramer. She continues, "This morning I was late so I took fifty dollars from your wallet. I'll stop by the bank tomorrow."

For a moment he doesn't answer, then he says, "What's mine is yours."

Mobile hot makes a mind wander.

The woman said it won't wobble. Won't wobble. If it wobbles it might fall. Your momma will love it. You're such a good boy to think about your momma. I don't want to go to jail. It's got tulip shades. For my momma. Amber colored. Amberwavesofgrain. Amber shades. Tulip shaped. I don't steal. I make good grades. Momma's gonna cry. She always cries. I already got twenty dollars. Light oak blades. Cuts like a knife. Momma, it's made in China. Won't wobble. Handmademomma. Fat bastard. Amber. I couldn't do it, Momma. I'm sorry ...


My momma is gone, dead to this world, and I think about her often. She loved me. She was crazy about Little Joe Morgan, the second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. She liked the way he pumped his arm before he swung the bat. It is a good memory. She wanted me -- the woman who gave me birth hunted freedom. People do what they have to do to sleep at night. My mother died a moral and principled woman, though she never used the world ethics. We didn't talk about the religious right -- or left, or abortion, or same-sex marriages. I am her child. I don't know what family values are, but I know what they are not.

David Pilgrim
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
Date posted: April 10, 2006


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