* * *
James Scott Bell
My Uncle Cecil was a failure. I remember my father shouting at my mother one night when Uncle Cecil was on his way to stay with us.
"He's a failure!" my father shouted.
"He's my brother!" my mother shouted back.
"He comes here and freeloads! Why doesn't he get a job?"
"He can't hold a job, you know that."
I wondered why my uncle couldn't hold a job. I was twelve and I had a job cutting lawns in my neighborhood. I didn't have any trouble finding work. We lived on Canoga Avenue in Woodland Hills, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley. There were lots of houses and green lawns.
Canoga Avenue was a ribbon of road that ran past our house and stretched almost all the way across the valley. On both sides of the street stood magnificent old pepper trees. Big, green, and bushy, they shaded the road from the sun. When I rode my bike down the street, it was like traveling through a verdant tunnel into a fairy tale.
Back then the valley was the part of Los Angeles that moved at a leisurely pace. It was a place to raise a family and live, if not off the fat of the land, then at least close to a neighborhood market. In those days the folks who worked at the neighborhood markets knew your name.
A few blocks west of my street they were turning the big field into a shopping center. I was sad about that because I used to play there. That was the field where they'd have Easter egg hunts and bands sometimes. They were going to build a new Safeway store.
That summer I was looking forward to splashing around in our pool with the neighborhood kids and-unfortunately-my big sister Emily. Emily was sixteen and couldn't get enough of The Beatles. She'd lie on the pool deck with The Beatles blaring from a record player. I couldn't stand them. I preferred The Beach Boys, who sang about Southern California girls and beaches and cars. As far as I was concerned, The Beatles were aliens who had invaded our shores.
On those warm nights I liked to open the window in my room for any breeze that happened to blow and listen to Vin Scully call the Dodger games on the radio. He had a voice like honey, and more than once I fell asleep in bliss as the game stretched into the later innings.
But this summer routine was to be interrupted-and soon.
My father told my mother, "There'll be trouble if he comes here. There always is."
"Please try," Mom said. "Cecil is still trying to find his niche."
"Niche? I just wish he would find a job. And keep it. Or a wife. But who would want to live with that dreamer?"
"He's a good person, Sid."
"He's a failure. An absolute failure!"
So Uncle Cecil came to us that summer after getting fired from a job in Rancho Cucamonga. I didn't know what job it was, nor did I ask. I sensed that Uncle Cecil was tired of being asked and that he had come to our house so he could rest.
When Uncle Cecil wasn't around, my mother kept telling my father to just let him have some peace. But Dad spent most of that summer grumbling. More than once he told Uncle Cecil, "Keep out of my way."
Uncle Cecil was tall, with curly black hair that was beating a retreat from his forehead. He had deep-set eyes, like a couple of secrets hiding in his head. He also had a mouth with a smile like the Fourth of July.
That didn't help him with my dad, though. My dad didn't care what Uncle Cecil did with his mouth, as long as he kept it shut.
"I see things deeply," Uncle Cecil said to me one day as we walked down Canoga Avenue. I was going to the market for my mother, who wanted eggs, bread, and cooking oil. Uncle Cecil said he would walk with me and would buy me a roll of Necco Wafers. (He told me that Necco Wafers were "the greatest candy in the world," as if there had been a contest and it had won.)
"How deeply?" I asked.
"Aha!" Uncle Cecil said, smiling widely and sticking his finger in the air. "I knew you were a poet like me!"
"Yes! When I told you I saw things deeply, you didn't ask me what that meant. You only asked me how deeply. Most people, when I tell them this, look at me like I'm crazy."
I remembered my dad's look whenever he saw Uncle Cecil, and it was exactly like that.
"We poets," he said, "see things deeply. God made us this way. Do you know the Psalms?"
"In the Bible?"
"It is poetry inspired by God! I tell you, David saw things more deeply than other people. That is why he was called a man after God's own heart."
We were getting close to Ventura Boulevard. The majestic pepper trees enfolded us. It was a hot day, but we were in a cool refuge of shade.
"Poems are made by fools like me," Uncle Cecil said. "But only God can make a tree." He stopped and put his hand on the gnarled trunk of a fat pepper tree. He patted it like a man would pat the hand of a dear friend. "Good old tree," he said.
"Yes," I said.
"And I know you are a poet because you never asked my why I can't hold a job."
I never had, but I was curious.
"I'll tell you, poet to poet. Once I was working on the freight dock at a big warehouse. I drove a forklift. I loaded big palettes and boxes and equipment onto trucks. It was hard work, but not brainy. So my brain was free to think about things. One day I was thinking about all of the junk I was loading and how we never ran out of it. When a supply of anything got low, bingo! Like magic we'd get more of it. We would keep shoveling junk out into the world, and on this particular day I began to wonder what would happen if we kept shoveling junk until it was everywhere. Until the whole world was covered with junk. Then what would we do?"
I waited for him to go on, but he was kind of staring into space. "But what about the job?" I asked.
"Oh yes. As I was thinking about junk I drove the forklift off the loading dock and almost killed myself. And that is why I can't seem to hold a job. Now, how about those Necco Wafers?"
That night we did what we always did in my house that summer-watched the evening news as we ate dinner. I think it was my dad's way of not having to make conversation with Uncle Cecil.
Emily wasn't there. She spent most of that summer with her friends, no doubt polluting her mind with The Beatles. On this particular night I remember Walter Cronkite on TV talking about war. There was something about a big push in Vietnam, near a place called Da Nang. Lots of our soldiers were being killed.
There was silence all around the table as we watched the news report. Images from a jungle, with soldiers in uniform running and shooting, flashed across the screen. Then there was an explosion. And voices screaming.
Suddenly Uncle Cecil threw his napkin down.
"I can't stand this war!" he shouted.
My father's face started turning red. He had been in the army during World War II, in Sicily. "You want the Communists to take over?"
"Our boys are being slaughtered! For nothing!"
My mother put her head in her hands.
"Nothing?" my dad shouted. "Communism is nothing?"
When my dad yelled, people all over the neighborhood could hear him. It was a force of nature, my dad's voice. Uncle Cecil was no match for it.
"Leave my table!" Dad yelled.
My mother started crying. "Sid, please."
Uncle Cecil stood up. "It's all right. I don't want to sit here quietly while boys are being slaughtered."
"Go on!" my father shouted.
I could see tears forming in Uncle Cecil's eyes. He tried hard to fight them back. His lower lip quivered like a scared dog. Then he turned and walked out our front door, closing it gently behind him.
On the television, Walter Cronkite was telling how many Americans the war had claimed this year.
We were having meatloaf and Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes that night. Normally I loved that meal, but this time I couldn't finish.
After dinner I went outside to look for Uncle Cecil. The night was dark, but the moon was full and shining a pale orange through the haze of the day's smog.
I found Uncle Cecil sitting on our fence, looking up at the sky.
"I see things deeply," he said in a near whisper. "I wish I didn't sometimes."
"That's okay," I said, even though I didn't know if it was okay or not.
My uncle put his arm around me, and the next thing I knew he was pulling me into his chest. His other arm came around and hugged me. I could feel his body shaking a little. And he didn't say anything for a long time.
The next day my father left for work early. My mom fixed a big breakfast of pancakes and eggs and sausages. It was like a special occasion. She kept offering more to Uncle Cecil, and refilling his coffee cup every time it got half empty.
Finally my uncle said, "No more. I can't eat another bite."
"Sure you can," Mom said. "I have another short stack ready to go."
"I am leaving today, Jan."
My mother froze with the coffee pot in her hand. "You don't have to go."
"That's right," I said. "You don't have to go."
But I knew he did have to go.
After breakfast he packed his one suitcase-a beige leather affair with fraying corners-and started to walk out the door.
"Wait," Mom said. "I'll drive you to the bus stop."
"No," said Uncle Cecil. "I want to walk down Canoga Avenue one more time."
"I'll go with you," I said.
We walked under the trees that let in little shafts of light like a stained glass window. We walked mostly in silence because there were not many words to say.
When we got to the corner of Canoga and Ventura, where the bus stop was, Uncle Cecil came to a sudden halt. He dropped his suitcase and stared.
Across the street, a man wearing a hard hat and sporting the largest chain saw in the world was cutting down a pepper tree.
"No!" shouted Uncle Cecil, but his voice was drowned out by the sound of the saw.
Without waiting for the traffic signal to change, Uncle Cecil charged across Ventura. He was almost hit twice by cars, but he ran as if he didn't notice.
I waited for the light to change and then ran to join him.
Uncle Cecil was waving his arms in front of the man with the saw. When he looked up and saw my uncle, I thought he might run away the way people do when confronted by a crazy man. He shut off his saw and said, "What is it?"
"You stop that!" Uncle Cecil said. "What gives you the right to cut down this tree?"
"You have no right! This tree was here long before you, and you just leave it alone."
"Hey, friend, I just do what I'm told."
"Only God can make a tree!"
The man with the saw shook his head. "They're all coming out." He jerked his thumb down the street.
Uncle Cecil looked. And his mouth fell open.
About half a dozen men with chain saws were starting in on the pepper trees. The air was suddenly alive with angry buzzing, like an attack of giant bees. This stretch of road would soon be treeless, making room for a wider street and big office buildings.
Uncle Cecil just stood there shaking his head. His shoulders slumped.
The man in the hard hat started his saw again.
I took Uncle Cecil by the arm and walked him back to the bus stop.
We sat on the bench together, saying nothing. Uncle Cecil just looked at his hands. Finally he said, "It will never be the same again."
We sat in silence for several minutes.
"Promise me something," Uncle Cecil said.
"Promise me that you will never stop looking at things, really looking at them, inside out and upside down, and finding the poetry. God makes trees and poets. Trees a man can cut down, but not a poet. Will you promise me?"
"Sure," I said.
The bus came, and Uncle Cecil got on. He paused on the step; just before the doors closed, he looked at me and smiled. It was like the Fourth of July.
I couldn't help smiling, too, though I knew that what Uncle Cecil said was true. Things would never be the same again. But I also knew something else, something I wanted to tell my father someday when I wasn't afraid of him. I wanted to tell him Uncle Cecil was not a failure.
I stood at the bus stop and waved until the bus was out of sight. Then I turned my back on the men cutting down the trees and right then I started looking deeply at everything, inside out and upside down, just like Uncle Cecil said.
And I still do.
The gray sky pressed down on two men, huddled close in the faint twilight.
Stoop-shouldered and leaning forward, Obadiah Abernathy stared off into empty space. He was ninety-two, the son of a sharecropper, the grandson of a Mississippi slave. His son Clarence, a 260-pound former college lineman, leaned over and looked into his father's eyes. They were moist and deep-welled-eyes that had seen more than any man should have to.
Obadiah shuffled toward the front porch, Clarence holding his hand. It still felt callused and leathery from picking cotton, milling grain, shoeing horses, and scrubbing floors. But now it was feather-light, a ghost of the hand that used to whip a baseball to first, grip a chopping maul for hours on end, and overpower young Clarence in arm wrestling.
"How you feelin', Daddy?" Clarence asked as they gingerly ascended the stairs to his brother Harley's front door.
"'Bout a half bubble off level. When you gets to be my age, if you wakes up in the mornin' and nothin' hurts, it's a sure sign you're dead." He laughed with a delightful hiss that sounded like air escaping a balloon. "Been hard since Dani's passin'. Man shouldn't have to see his baby girl die. Lijah tell me that when he lost Bobby. Couldn't have made it without my sweet Jesus. No suh."
Two weeks after his sister's funeral Clarence could still hear the wailing. Nobody wept like black folk. They'd had centuries of practice.
A sports columnist for the Trib, Clarence had knocked on many doors. But the door in front of him now was the hardest. He let his wife Geneva do the knocking.
"Here they are, black by popular demand!" Malcolm X-style glasses framed Harley's face. A professor at Portland State, he often wore his suit and Black Muslim bow tie, but tonight had on a striking brown and yellow kente cloth.
While Harley hugged his daddy, Clarence brushed past him to his sister Marny's embrace. Clarence followed her into the kitchen, lured by the smell of ham hocks. Geneva stepped into the kitchen, put down her sack, and poured in bacon grease. She'd threatened to stop this, to keep the men from dying of heart attacks, but they'd said if she did, she might as well kill them outright.
Aunt Ida added greens to the ham hocks.
Excerpted from the Storytellers' Collection Book 2 by Karen Ball Copyright © 2001 by Multnomah Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.