My wife has a story for me. She’s been quiet for the last hour, gathering her thoughts while I drive. I recognize this carefulness with words as the influence of her father, about whom, I know, the story will be. Once, long ago when we were only dating, she told me her father took her and her sisters to the park, but they could not play with any of the white children on any of the slides or swings. Rodney sat with his daughters around him on a park bench and they watched everyone else play. He would point out when a boy pushed someone or a girl cut in line for the monkey bars and say, Now, what did that kid do wrong? They watched and answered. As a child, my wife never once sat on a swing.
She sits in the passenger seat of our white Civic as I drive us along the 40, heading east, out of Arizona. We’re in the highlands, stunted shrubs and sparse yellow grass spreading toward the horizon. Behind us, mountains, pale and dimming. Ahead of us, a small town, either Winslow or Holbrook, blending its shabbiness into the tufted, gray desert.
My wife looks ahead, her dark brown eyes focused on the highway stretching forever in front of us. She holds her purse in her lap, but hasn’t opened it. She clears her throat, and I rouse myself out of my thoughts, which had strayed to that Eagles song with “standing on a corner” in it, which I’ve always hated. As my wife begins to speak, I glance at the gas gauge to make sure that I don’t lose track of our fuel.
“This all began, as far as I can say, with my father’s father. We called him Papa Charles. He came home to Cincinnati from Korea and married my Grandma Renee. They had five kids: Rodney, Karen, Mark, Toby, and aunt Patty, in that order. But when they were just starting out, before any of the kids, they lived with Grandma Renee’s parents, the Cobbs.
“Papa Charles started building a house out of cinderblock out near the woods. It took a year; he built it half in the summer and half in the winter. My dad always said that the cinderblocks kept in heat year-round. Hot in the winter, blazing in the summer. That little house was a furnace.
“I saw the house once. My dad always loved to talk about it and he took us there when I was nine and we were visiting his Cincinnati family. It was a little gray square, like the cinderblocks it was made of. It had one tiny window in the front, the kitchen, I think, and an A-frame roof. The red front door was in the exact center. It looked like something a child would draw.
“From the stories my dad had told me, I’d expected something bigger. Even nine-year-old me could see that this was more of a playhouse than something fit for my dad and his two sisters and two brothers. No one lived there anymore, but we didn’t go inside. I imagined it was something like the Bucket household from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“But there was space around it. The little gray square sat suspended in green. On either side, you could have fit a decent sized house with an adequate yard. Behind it, the back yard sloped downhill toward a line of trees, dense and barrier-like. There were neighbors, but their remoteness made me think that my dad must have grown up in isolation from anyone other than his siblings and parents.
“By the time the house was finished in the winter, Grandma Renee was pregnant. While the last coat of gray paint was still dripping, Papa Charles drove down to the Cobb house and said, ‘Renee, the house is done. Time to go home.’ As he held her hand and walked her up the front steps, she took a look in the house and saw a rough wooden floor and no furniture. The house was done, but there was nowhere to sit or sleep. She sent him out right away to buy a bed.
“Renee stayed behind. The inside of the house was simple, a T-shaped wall dividing into three rooms: a bathroom, a bedroom, and the kitchen, which would also function as the living room. She’d brought a few household items from the Cobb house and started sweeping the splintery floorboards. This wasn’t a house to go barefoot inside.
“Papa Charles returned an hour later with a twin bed. He’d always been frugal, but a twin bed for two adults must have seemed crazy to Renee. Still, she didn’t complain, because you couldn’t complain in Papa Charles’ house. At night, Charles and his pregnant wife squeezed into the little twin bed, their lone piece of furniture, their only extravagance.
“Charles cultivated the weeds that make burrs in the grassy fields around the house. The neighbor kids lived some ways away, but still he didn’t want them playing in his yard. No one in that neighborhood had shoes back then, so it was a good trick. When my dad, sisters, and I visited decades later, the field was still populated with this legacy of burrs. Even for my feet, toughened by running after the ice cream man on Phoenix concrete, walking barefoot in that grass was agony.
“And Charles had a guard-dog, a yellow mutt named Dwight. He chained the dog to a post out front, another deterrent to any possible trespasser. He fed the dog gunpowder to make it crazy. I can only imagine that it worked.
“Rodney was born. He being the first boy, and Renee being the woman she was, my dad was never allowed to touch the floor. She always carried him; cousins have confirmed this. Maybe it started as a way to protect him from the splinters of the wood floor and the burrs in the yard, but I think there was more to it. Renee dressed Rodney in all white. He was pure. Clean. Her baby boy. For the first three years of his life, he slept in between Charles and Renee in the little twin bed.
“Karen was born next, and my dad says she ruined everything. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know people in my family call her K. K. (Krazy Karen). As a little girl, Papa Charles would take her on long walks with their insane yellow dog. The burrs in the yard never seemed to faze her. When she’d get a splinter, she wouldn’t cry, would pull it out dispassionately and drop the bloody point of wood back on the floor. Whenever you’d see Renee and the kids, Rodney would be in her arms, and Karen on the floor. When she was born, Papa Charles and Renee bought a new bed, a queen, and moved the twin into the living room. The kids shared the old bed.
“My dad says that Karen became heavily addicted to cocaine in the eighties.
“The family grew, and each new kid added his or her body to the twin in the living room. By then, the little house had collected a few more pieces of furniture: a small table with a few chairs. It was the biggest table they could fit in the house, but still, they had to eat breakfast in shifts. First, Papa Charles and Rodney. Then the younger children. Then Renee.
“There’s a story my Dad likes to tell. He says it’s why he doesn’t like water. If you mention water, he’ll start talking about it. The way he tells the story goes like this:
“‘I was six, and Mama and Papa had K. K. and me in the back yard doing a picnic. It took a couple blankets on the ground to protect from the burrs. Old Dwight was in the front yard howling his crazy ass off like always. It must have been April because the trees were getting their green back in them. Squirrels were out again, so that means the foxes were out getting fat on them. I saw one of them foxes out near the trees, and I wandered off the blanket real quiet toward it. I must have been wearing my first pair of shoes ever, and it felt good to be on my own feet. Mama and Papa must have been scolding K. K. about something, probably for being such a bitch like she always was, because I got away without them noticing. That fox didn’t notice me yet either, so I just kept on creeping down that hill at him, quiet as I could. And then he noticed me and got all tense-like. I froze and so did he. A second later, in a flash of orange, the fox jumped into the woods with barely the sound of leaves and twigs under his little black feet. And I just started after him. I was off; you couldn’t have caught me. I heard behind me Mama saying, “Rodney! Where are you going, boy?” But I was just going for that little orange devil and into the trees, and then I heard, more frantic this time, “Rodney! Get back!” But by then, I was in the woods, running through old dead leaves and mud, and the branches were scratching up my nice white shirt and pants. But I didn’t care. For some reason, I just wanted that fox so bad. I was tripping on my undone shoelaces, and dirtying up my whole body, but it didn’t matter. And then I saw the old creek back there at the bottom of the hill, and the fox was in it, just paddling along with his doggy little feet, trying to get to the other side away from me coming after him. And I said, I remember this, “No you don’t, you cracker fox!” And I jumped splashing into that creek after him, into the muddy brown water. Girls, let me tell you, there’s never been colder water than that Cincinnati creek. And silly me, I didn’t even realize I didn’t know how to swim, so I was just thrashing around the mud, trying to stay above the water, probably freezing to death, feeling like my chest was encased in a block of ice so that I could barely even breathe in when I got my mouth into the air. But I was not panicking, mind you, because your dad does not panic. I was really just angry with that fox. I could see him standing on the far side of the creek’s shore, just staring at me like a smug little cracker. But he got away, and I never saw him again, so I guess he gets to be smug. As I tried to splash my way out of the creek, and I didn’t know if I needed to go forward after that devil or back toward home, I heard Mama coming down into the woods after me. She was wailing and holding her chest, her sun hat lost somewhere behind her. She got down into the mud and pulled me out. I was shivering and cold, so she just held me tight as she could, getting mud all over herself as she carried me up the hill, back toward home. When we got out of the woods, I could already see that Papa was taking off his belt and I knew what was coming, but Mama just said, “No, Charlie,” and kept on going. She took me into the house and drew a hot bath. All my muddy clothes splatted into a pile on the bathroom floor and she dunked me into the water. I don’t think I’d ever been so dirty in my life. She just kept washing the water over my body, saying, “Sweet boy, sweet boy. Gotta get you clean, sweet boy.” Eventually, I stopped shivering. Mama let out that muddy water and drew another clean bath to wash me in. She did it again and again until the water came out clear. I was warm and happy, and I guess by then, I’d forgotten all about that little orange fox. The mud had dried on Mama’s dress, and it would stain. She’d still wear it around the house on Saturdays, but she wasn’t going to wear it outside anymore. That set of clothes and shoes that I’d been wearing, Mama tried to get them white again, but they were going to be brown forever. She had to throw them out, made Papa go and buy new ones.’”
My wife is quiet for a few minutes. I look at the gas gauge. We still have half a tank. I think we’ll probably make it to Gallup, New Mexico before I have to fill up again. My wife takes a drink of coffee from a Styrofoam cup. It must be cold by now. She decides to finish the story.
“My dad first told this story to my sisters and me when we saw that old house on the Cincinnati trip. We’d been in the car for a week because on the way, we’d broken down in Sayre, Oklahoma. At one point, my father had demanded that my mother use some of our travel money to go to a laundromat while he haggled with the mechanic. My mother had taken my sisters and I and spent the money at McDonald’s instead. We ate hamburgers and French fries while my mom watched us. She looked concerned. Our clothes had begun to smell, but we were happy. Dad didn’t have much to say to my mother for the rest of the trip.
“He told the story of the fox and the creek, looking pointedly at my mother in some places. He said, ‘Mama was so embarrassed for anyone to see her kids in dirty clothes. After I got them all stained in the mud, she would never, never have allowed me to be seen in that outfit again.’
“My dad’s family eventually left Cincinnati. The factory closed, and Charles looked for work out west. He moved his family to Phoenix, Arizona. They got a house that was a little bigger, but on a smaller plot of dry, brown land. Charles tried, but couldn’t get the burrs to grow.
“My dad says that’s where the family drifted apart. Without the house to enclose them, the tight-knit ball of yarn that was the family unit unwound. Karen moved out at fourteen. Mark and Toby left together. My dad stayed behind in the Phoenix house through his year in college before dropping out. Aunt Patty eventually moved to Seattle, got a PhD, and no one has seen her since.
“He blames leaving Cincinnati on everything, but he’s not always sentimental. At least in Phoenix, there weren’t any creeks to fall into. And he prefers the western introversion to the fake-friendliness of places like Ohio. He likes to say,
‘Those eastern Negroes don’t have any class.’”
It takes me a while to realize that my wife has finished her story. She simply trails off and looks out the window. I wait several minutes, but she doesn’t seem to have any more to say. It’s not that I’m disappointed, but maybe I had been expecting more.
Outside, the sun is setting behind us, and I drive into a steadily darkening horizon. We’re moving out of gray highlands and into brown, dry desert. The shrubs and grass are gone. Hairy cacti dot the ground. The 40 is a very straight road.
Soon, we’ll leave Arizona, where my wife was born, where we both grew up, where we met and fell in love. We’ll pass into New Mexico, then Texas, Oklahoma. We will cross an imaginary border that begins somewhere around Missouri, into a place where people are allegedly friendlier, the grass greener, the summers endless. We’re moving to the Midwest, a place my wife grew up knowing as a site of nostalgia. Neither of us had particularly happy childhoods.
We’re thinking of starting a family.