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Uncle Beasley's courtship.

We were sitting in Momma's den waiting for Thanksgiving dinner when Daddy, against Momma's express orders, offered Uncle Beasley a highball. The next thing I knew (only took two downs on the TV screen) Uncle Beasley had gotten up from the Lay-Z-Boy , opened the cabinet, and was making himself another one. He didn't do much mixing either, just poured some gin right over the ice and waddled back to his chair. He slapped down in the chair, slid forward a little, and turned toward me. His gray face was heavily wrinkled, and he pressed his chin into his neck and looked at me with his bulging eyes. "Boy," he said in a rough voice, "ain't you got nothing better'n me to look at." I nodded, and turned back to the TV. "When you been through what all I have," he said, and I looked around to see him rubbing his palm across his kinky, smoke-colored hair," you deserve a drink or two."

"What you been through?" I asked.

"You don' wanna know. You couldn't appreaciate it." He drank the gin like it was water and smacked his lips afterwards. The sweet odor floated over to me, mixed with the smell of the turkey and bread coming up from the kitchen. I laid on my stomach, leaned on my elbows, and looked up at him. "How can I appreciate it if you don' tell me what it is. If you tell me ..."

He fumbled inside his ratty cardigan and took out a package of Camels. He put the glass on the coffee table, and I thought I ought to get a coaster from the table drawer, but didn't move. I watched him slowly shake a cigarette from the package and with a slight tremble in his hand place it on the edge of his lips. He searched himself again, and then asked for matches.

"Momma don' like smoking in the house," I said.

He asked again for matches.

"Momma don' |low smoking."

"You know what is your trouble, boy?"

"Ain't got one."

"Ain't knowed you got one."

"What is it then?"

He got up with the glass and went to the cabinet again. "You' momma. You' a momma's boy. Momma's boy ain't a man. Momma's boy a punk, and a punk don't get no poontang.If you don't get no poontang then you can't appreciate a man like me."

I started to ask what poontang was when he look up from pouring and gave me a crafty, twinkling look that I knew he was waiting for me to ask.

"I get poontang when I want it," I said.

He was half grinning and waddled on back to the chair, stepping on the cuffs of his pants because they were falling off his hips. "That's how much you know. Poontang ain't no it. It's a she." He held the cigarette between his fingers like he was smoking it.

"What about her?"

As he swallowed the gin, his eyes looked like they were about to spin and it was just the sheer force of his grimace that held them still. "Ain't none of your business," he said. "Ain't nobody's business but my own."

Momma came into the den undoing her apron and folding it up. Then she stopped and sniffed the air. "Uncle Beasley. Lord, Uncle Beasley, who let you into the liquor cabinet?"

Uncle Beasley smushed his chin up against his neck and looked over at me. He acted like he didn't hear Momma and Momma looked to me for an answer.

"Daddy told him."

"Bill," Momma called over her shoulder and fussed over Uncle Beasley, trying to make him sit up straight. "Lord, Lord. Why didn't you wear that new sweater I gave you last Christmas, Uncle Beasley. Why do you let yourself go like this?" She was picking at his sweater and pushing his tie back into a knot. "Used to be you wouldn't be caught dead looking like this. Where's the Uncle I used to know and love? Where's your pride, Uncle Beasley? Your pride?"

Uncle Beasley pushed Momma's hand away, and sat up and started like he was straightening himself up. "I got my pride, girl, if I ain't got nothin' else."

Momma stood back and put her hand on her hips. "Well, you should look like it. You should try to keep yourself up. Why don't you go up and rinse your mouth before Miss Perkins gets here. She is a very respectable woman and I want things to go right."

The doorbell rang and we heard Daddy going for it. "Bill," Momma called and started out of the room, but stopped a second to order me to pick up the den and make myself look presentable.

Uncle Beasley looked at me and shook his head. His eyes were watery, and he looked sweaty. "Ain't one damn man in this house," he said.

Miss Perkins retired from principal at the school, but she still walked and talked like one, which was the main reason I wished Momma hadn't invited her. But Momma thought it would be good for Uncle Beasley to meet a woman-friend his own age. I had to sit next to her at the table, with Daddy on my left at the head, Uncle Beasley at the foot next to Miss Perkins, and Momma on the other side next to the kitchen door. Momma served up the table, we prayed, and Daddy cut up the turkey and passed around the plates. Miss Perkins asked me what college I aspired to attend and in what I aspired to concentrate my studies. I told her I didn't know because I was just sixth grade. Momma said that wasn't a polite response, so I had to come up with a college and, since The Tide was playing on TV, I said Alabama and I said I had a great interest in math. Come to it, she was a math teacher before she became a principal and I had to tell her what kind of math." Calculations," I said. She smiled one of those ain't-he-cute smiles, and Momma said didn't I mean calculus. I didn't know what the hell calculus was and looked up to Daddy. But Daddy just had this dumb, chewing grin on his face, so I looked to Uncle Beasley. He was chewing very slowly, looking at Momma, then Miss Perkins, then me, then Miss Perkins, and then me. He swallowed his food and took a sip of his water.

"Gerald," Momma said sternly, "you do mean calculus, don't you?"

Uncle Beasley looked at me, then he turned with a pleasant, still smile and said, "I bet you know everything there is to know about calculus, Miss Perkins, an intelligent, good-looking woman like you?"

Miss Perkins patted her lips with the napkin and put it back in her lap with a flare. "Oh, Mr. Beasley. Do call me Gladys."

"Gladys," Uncle Beasley repeated." What a lovely name. Almost as lovely as your person."

Momma had a smile on her face that made her mouth look frozen. "Isn't he a tease?" she said.

"He's a charmer," Miss Perkins said like Uncle Beasley wasn't even there.

The rest of the supper wasn't so bad because Uncle Beasley had gotten me off the hook and now Miss Perkins was making little glances over at him and smiling. She and Momma talked about Negro progress and how far colored people had come in the last few years. Miss Perkins patted me on the back at one time and said that I was right to aspire to the University of Alabama because it was my home school and due to brave people like Miss Authurine Lucy, I could go there if I wanted to and do just as well as those white children - only I would have to work twice as hard in order to get any credit for it. Then Momma puffed up real proud and told all about Uncle Beasley. She said that when he was going to college, to get around letting him go to Alabama, the state paid most of his way to New York University, which was a better education anyway. Uncle Beasley had majored in Business Administration and had his own real estate firm in Birmingham.

Miss Perkins said she hadn't known about that, but she had heard about his insurance dealings in Montgomery and his wonderful contributions to colored progress in our city. He was a real credit, and she had always wanted to meet him. Momma said how Uncle Beasley always helped the colored folks, even if it meant he made less money or couldn't buy a fancy car like the white insurance men. He did right, Miss Perkins said, because if Negroes didn't look out for Negroes, nobody else would.

Uncle Beasley ate steadily, like they weren't even talking about him. And when they finished he smiled at Miss Perkins and said, "I always enjoy meeting prominent young ladies like yourself."

Miss Perkins put the napkin to her bosom, which was very large and protruded right up to the edge of the table. "Why thank you, Beasley - I may call you Beasley? It is always nice to be called young."

"I like young women," Uncle Beasley said. "The younger the better."

Mommma suddenly lifted her chair back from the table and said dessert was served, so Daddy and me had to gobble down our seconds and clear the table. She brought in plates of sweet potato pie and ice cream, and Uncle Beasley said he didn't want one. He said he had enough sweetness just looking at Miss Perkins. Miss Perkins put her fingers to her mouth like she was surprised, and batted her eyes at Uncle Beasley. Momma cleared her throat and told Uncle Beasley that Miss Perkins was our guest, and that the dinner table was not the right place for fool talk. She looked at Daddy. "Isn't that right, Bill?"

"Pie's mighty good," Daddy said. "Mighty good."

Uncle Beasley looked at Daddy, then me, then Miss Perkins, and then took a long, hard look at Momma.

Momma turned and smiled to Miss Perkins and started to say where she had gotten the potatoes to make the pie.

"Ain't no fool talk," Uncle Beasley interrupted, scooted back his chair on the hardwood floor with a screech that made Momma grimace, and excused himself.

"He's very sensitive," Momma said. "You know, since his business troubles."

Miss Perkins said she had heard about Uncle Beasley's troubles and it was a great shame that a man of his stature...

"Shame is right." Momma cleared her throat and nodded toward me to tell Miss Perkins she didn't want to talk in front of me, so I knew they weren't talking about just business. I looked up at Daddy. He gave me a wink and asked me who'd won the football game.

After supper Momma told me and Daddy that we could wash the dishes later, but to retire to the den so that we could converse with our guests. I would have rather washed the dishes because I knew Momma wasn't going to let me watch TV, and I would have to sit up straight and listen while she and Miss Perkins talked about the school board and all the goings on between the teachers and the white and colored, or she would talked about her specialty, home economics, and how young women were ruining themselves - not to mention shaming the race - by not paying more attention to her in class. But when I got in there I sat right across from Uncle Beasley, who was slumped on the sofa with another glass of ice and gin and was slowly sipping and looking glum. Momma pushed a pillow around him like she was trying to make him more comfortable, but she was really trying to get him to sit up straight without Miss Perkins catching on. Momma offered Miss Perkins the Lay-Z-Boy, but Miss Perkins said that she thought she would be more comfortable on the sofa, and that Daddy ought to have the Lay-Z-Boy anyway. That was really a man's chair, she said. Momma told her to make herself at home, but she gave Daddy this look like no telling what would happen next. Then she offered Miss Perkins a highball and set about making everybody a drink, except me and Uncle Beasley.

"What you think about ole Nixon?" Daddy started in on his favorite subject, which was politics.

"Oh, Bill," Momma said," nobody wants to talk about the election. What's done is done."

Uncle Beasley cleared his throat. "Ain't nothin' done if it's kicking."

"Why Beasley, whatever do you mean by that?" Miss Perkins took her drink from Momma and turned her knees toward Uncle Beasley. "You don't think it's too late for a recount?"

"Never count a man out 'til he's dead and gone." Uncle Beasley started fumbling in his sweater for a cigarette.

"I'm mighty afraid that Humphrey's gone." Daddy leaned back in the chair and took a deep breath, and I could tell he was swelling up for a long speech.

"I ain't talking about Humphries." Uncle Beasley found the cigarette and put it on his lips. "I'm talking about a man." He fumbled again and stopped and told me to go get a match. I looked at Momma, who was looking at Daddy, who was looking at Uncle Beasley. Then Uncle Beasley turned to Miss Perkins." What do you think, Gladys? You think a man ought to just lay up like a dog just because he got knocked down once or twice."

"Why Mr. Beasley, I..."

"Well, would you want a man like that?"

"I've never given it much thought I..."

"I b'leve you've been giving it a lot of thought I b'leve you thinking about it right now."

"Uncle Beasley!" Momma said.

"Oh, no." Miss Perkins stopped Momma with a wag of her finger. "I've been a high school principal long enough to know how to handle fresh, young boys."

"I ain't a boy. And I don't see how you can look at me and call me one."

"But you're acting like one," Momma said.

"I'm acting like what I is. I'm acting just like what you see in front of you."

Miss Perkins stuck out her chest. "All see is a charming old drunkard."

Uncle Beasley straightened himself up and rested his glass on his knee. In a quick, thoughtful moment he snatched the cigarette from his lips. "Miss Perkins," he started slowly," you' a nice lady. You a learned lady and you've made a great contribution to the community. But you don't know everything there is to know. Leastwise, you don!t know all there is to know about me."

"Well, what is there to know?" Momma laughed, trying to cut him off

"Louise. You my sister's only child, and I know you mean well But why don't you shut your flap for now and let me have my say?."

"Bill."

Daddy looked at Momma, and then turned to Uncle Beasley and asked if he could fill his glass again. Uncle Beasley smilled, and turned back to Miss Perkins. "Gladys, let me tell you a story that will give you a little history about me. I never took time to get married. Was always too busy with this deal or that one, making money and trying to make something of myself. I was trying to be a credit to my race, and I'll say I did my share. But then one morning I looked at myself and what I saw was a' old gray-haired man who was heading out to a dingy old office up in Pleasant Hill, where I'd write policies and buy and sell, and make good money and come home to an empty house. On holidays, where would I go but over to my niece's house and spend the time with her family, 'cause I didn't have one of my own? No offense. I love my niece, but it ain't the same as having your own. Then come a young woman, young enough to be my daughter. Come in for me to write her a policy. And I did. I asked her questions about her life, was she married, who her parents were - the standard questions - and the more I asked the more I saw myself leaning in toward her and wishing for her, not just for sex ...." He shot a glance at Momma to quiet her - "I wanted companionship - though sex was OK too."

"I hardly think it's appropriate to discuss your affairs?" Miss Perkins said and looked at Momma like she was embarrassed.

"Why not?" said Uncle Beasley. "You been doing it behind my back, ain't you? Ain't that part of the reason you come over here today? To see the old fool in person? The old fool that run after the young gal and lost all his money to her?"

Miss Perkins craned her neck and opened her mouth to talk. But Uncle Beasley wouldn't let her. "It only natural, and good, that you should talk about me." He used the sofa arm to pull himself to the edge of the sofa seat. "I appreciate it that Louise thought enough of me to gossip. And that's what it was to you." He rubbed his hand across his head. "But to me it was my first sweet love. I was 62 years old, but I was a school boy. My feet didn't touch the ground for two years. Every time I saw that girl a coming my heart stopped beating and my mind went fuzzy. I couldn't concentrate on my business, and money just poured out of my pockets like water out of a faucet. But do you think I cared one iota? No. Not a hellish iota. Because I was in love. I didn't care about the cars I bought her, or the clothes and coats, and clubs and trips to New York City. You name it. We done it. She ruined me. But you know what I'm thinking right now?" He looked at Momma and Momma turned her face away. "Right now?" He put the cigarette back on his lips and patted himself for matches, then took the cigarette away. "Right now, I wish I was about that boy's age." He pointed at me with the hand that held the cigarette. "Then I would start out all over again. I would change everything. I wouldn't care about business, or progress, or education. Just one thing."

"You wouldn't say it." Momma stood up straight as board." You wouldn't say it in my house."

Everybody was still and quiet for a moment with Momma straight and tense and glaring down at Uncle Beasley, and Uncle Beasley sitting so close to the edge of the sofa he was more squatting than sitting. Then Uncle Beasley relaxed and sat back. "No, child. It is your house. Yours and Bill's. And I know when I done said enough."

I couldn't figure out what it was he couldn't say in front of Momma there were so many things Momma wouldn't let you say. But I had never seen Momma this stiff, so stiff she was standing on her toes, which I didn't realize until she relaxed a little and her heels slid back into her shoes. I looked at Daddy to see if he would give me a clue. He was looking down at his highball and swirling the ice cubes around. Miss Perkins had her napkin to her lips, looking like she was wrestling down a belch. I figured it must have been the name of the girl that Uncle Beasley couldn't say. She must have been one of them fresh girls - womanish girls - as Momma called them, who made trouble in high school and went on dates with boys that wasn't even in high school. Maybe she had been one of Momma's students. Maybe that was why he couldn't say her name. Her name started to swell up in side of me, and I squeezed my knees together to keep it down.

Then Momma turned to me, patting her hair. "Gerald, why don't you run and get a headstart on the dishes? Daddy will come to help you later." She threw a little smile behind it, but her eyes sparkled she was so mad. I got up right away like I had been taught to obey, but what Uncle Beasley said about there not being no man in the house gave me a tug. I knew she was my momma and all and I loved her, but I didn't think it was fair that she wouldn't even let Uncle Beasley say his girlfriend's name in the house. Daddy was sitting over there playing with his ice cubes. I started on the steps that go down to the split level when I ran back, half stumbling that word tripping me up.

"Gerald?" Momma said and everybody looked at me. I felt my mouth open and shut like a goldfish that done hopped out the bowl." Gerald?" Momma's voice went up a little like she thought I was sick or something and then, before I much knew it, it came out of me like a shout of relief.

"Poontag! Right? That her name? Poontang!"

Miss Perkins stopped her napkin about six inches from her mouth. Daddy stopped swirling his glass, but his ice kept going around. They looked at me and then at Momma, and I looked at Uncle Beasley, who was sitting just looking like he hadn't heard a thing.

"What did you say?' Momma asked in that tone that told me I had better not answer because she had heard me plain enough and was just asking to see how bad a trouble I wanted. It was something about Uncle Beasley, the way he was slumped on the sofa, like his spine had turned to mashed potatoes. So I turned to Momma, and I wasn't mean at all and I said. "Her name? Ain't it Poontang?"

Momma sighed and folded her arms and acted like she was relaxed. "Young man, where did you learn a word like that?"

It seemed obvious to me that there wasn't but one place I could have learned it, and I knew Momma knew it too. She just wanted me to say. I realized I could have played innocent at that point, and just pretended like that name was just a name like any other I had heard and how was a kid to know what to say in front of grownups. If I told her who told it to me, she would give me a talk, or tell Daddy to do it, and send me on out to wash the dishes. Then she would have a time with Uncle Beasley. I had the feeling she wanted to have a time with Uncle Beasley and when I looked at him slumped down with his chin against his chest and his pudgy stomach showing through his shirt, I knew I couldn't say who told me.

"Didn't you hear me speak to you?" Momma barely parted her teeth when she spoke, and her jaw bone was twitching besides. She shot a glance at Uncle Beasley, then back to me." Come here."

I fumbled a moment, trying to come up with something to say, and looked around for somebody to help me. Daddy was sitting up straight in his chair and looking at Momma like he was waiting for her to give him his turn. Miss Perkins had folded her napkin in her lap, picked up an Ebony magazine, and was staring down at the cover.

I said, 'Come here.'"

I shuffled over, just a foot or two, but close enough.

Where did you learn that filthy word?"

It wasn't much a question she wanted me to answer, because when I opened my mouth to say I didn't know it was a bad word, she walloped me across the mouth with her open palm. My eyes watered up and my nose ran, and I ran my tongue over my lips thinking I would taste blood.

"Now, sir, apologize to our guests." She grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and spun me around to face Miss Perkins." Apologize!"

My lips felt so thick that I could hardly get them apart to say anything, but I managed to say, "I apologize."

Miss Perkins looked up from the magazine like she was surprised and said, "Apology accepted."

My face was burning now, not just from the slap, but from the way Miss Perkins was looking at me, so coy, but I could see she was dying to get a good laugh out of it. I started toward the stairs, but Momma stopped me.

"Sir, where do you think you're going? I said apologize to our guests."

"I did."

"You didn't to Uncle Beasley. He is a guest in this house."

Uncle Beasley looked up at me through his slitted eyelids, his face red and shiny. He wouldn't let me apologize to him, I thought, he told me the word. He pushed himself up straight, and I thought now he would say something to Momma, tell her it wasn't may fault that I had said the damn word. But he sat there, and folded his arms acrosss his chest like he was preparing himself to hear my apology. I thought well, maybe he was playing it out for Momma and that be would give me a wink, some little sign to let me know that he knew it wasn't my fault and that this was something that would be kept between men, but no wink came. Instead, Momma's hand came and whacked the back of my head making me duck and hold my face.

"What did I tell you to do?" She said.

Daddy stood up and I knew that Momma had given him the signal to give me the belt. If Uncle Beasley would only give me a little sign, like tell me it was a secret joke, then I could apologize, but his face had this expectant look on it, worse than Miss Perkins'. He was acting sanctimonious, and I could have kicked him as soon as open my mouth to him.

"Did you hear your momma?" Daddy asked m the way he was obliged to.

I didn't say anything, just breathed hard. The room filled up with my breathing and I wished I was breathing out arms with hands with long fingers that would float over and choke Uncle Beasley.

"Son?" Daddy's voice was soft, half-begging' cause he didn't like to whip and I was building fast to a whipping. Then Momma shoved me toward him, and that was the sign to whip. But I stepped right back in front of Uncle Beasley, so he would know that I blamed him for it. He was looking straight at me, but his face held that sanctimonious expression like he just couldn't understand what devil bad gotten into me.

All during the whipping I thought about that look on Uncle Beasley's face. I lay across my bed sideways with my pants around my ankles, Daddy laying leather to my bare butt. Daddy was an easy whipper when Momma wasn!t around, and she had stayed in the den with the guests. All I had to do was to whimper a little and he would call it quits. I just clutched at the bedspread each time that belt stung across my buttocks, but I didn't even breath hard. He could beat me all night if he wanted to. He could beat me until I died; at least I would die a man.

Finally Daddy stopped and said, "Son?" but I didn't say a thing. He sat on the bed beside me, and I thought he was going to deliver one of his pep talks. But he didn't say anything, just sat quiet a while. We could hear Momma in the den telling Miss Perkins she didn't know what on earth had possessed me, and Miss Perkins finally getting her laugh in.

Not until Daddy left did I pull up my pants, and then I lay across the bed in the dark and listened to the grown-ups talk, and finally say good night. I heard Momma helping Daddy in the kitchen and then they went to bed. Way into the night, I got up and went into the kitchen to get a drink of water. On the way, I saw Uncle Beasley stin sitting on the couch where he had been. He was slumped down and looking straight ahead, his eyes half-open and still. I stood looking at him, thingking now would be a good time to put a pillow over his face, when it occurred to me that he might already be dead. I couldn't see him breathing, and he was as still as a picture.

Then without moving a muscle, he suddenly said, "What you looking at, boy?"

I tried to cover up being startled by saying just as mean as I could, "You, that's who."

"Ain't you got something better to do than look at a' old fool?"

Maybe I like looking at old fools."

He rubbed his palms across his face." You live long enough, boy, you' see a lotta fools. Old ones, and young ones, too."

Anthony Grooms lives in Atlanta with his wife. He is to author of Ice Poems (Poetry Atlanta Press).
COPYRIGHT 1992 African American Review
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Grooms, Anthony
Publication:African American Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Words:4924
Previous Article:"Race" and hermeneutics: paradigm shift - from scientific to hermeneutic understanding of race.
Next Article:Christianity and individualism: (re-)creation and reality in Frederick Douglass's representation of self.
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