Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

The Homemade Fireworks
     for Alex Taylor

Original issue—

The hit man my Aunt Laverta hired to kill her blind husband, Bill, turned out to be an undercover cop. She did five years in the Pine Bluff penitentiary.

An excerpt from a letter she wrote my Aunt Charlene from prison:

I Can remember When I was three years Old, Dad Carried me on his back acrost a field to Church every Sunday, and he Would Walk about two Miles of a Morning with us when we went to school and the Sloughs would be up, and full of Water, he Carried us one at a time on his back. And Daddy Would Come through the rain, sleet, snow or What ever and bring us hot Kentucky-Wonder Brown-bean’s and some of the best Corn bread I ever ate, at lunch time, he always made the best corn-bread, I can Still see him coming acrost that scope of woods wearing a brown leather cap, the ear Muffs down on his ears, and a pr. of kaki pants on, And I Can still remember the Other Children who was not that fortunate as to have some-one bring a hot lunch to them, Some had no lunch at all, poor Mom and dad always provided for us as best they could, We all worked and shared what we had, We were a clost happy family.

One time my Uncle Leon and I were picking haws for Christmas jelly, and I said, “I had this student from Memphis last semester in my freshman comp class. His name was Sylvester Peoples. Nice kid, personality plus. But he never could learn my last name. On his final essay, he put my name down as B.R. Wondervillage.”

Uncle Leon laughed. He said, “My preacher calls me Brother Derville Brown. Lot of folks have trouble with our name.” He stripped a twig of its haws. As they were pinging in his pan, he asked me, “Did you set Sylvester straight?”

“I showed him what he had written,” I said, “and told him it made my year. I asked if he was issuing a challenge to my whole life: Be our wondervillage.”

My late grandfather Herbert Edward Brownderville. Shards of biography.

Uncle Leon: “Daddy had them big old stovepipe arms. He would saw a tree down with a crosscut saw by himself, and then saw it up in lengths, and then he’d take a broadax and hew that thing out square, which is no easy task, and make it slick, too. He was so good with a broadax, he could do it—that’s an art. And then he’d pick that dude up and carry him out of the woods on his shoulder.”

Alton Ray Brownderville (my father): “Daddy was forty-five years old when I was born. He’d already had his teeth pulled by then and didn’t have the money for false teeth, so I never knew him with teeth. But he could eat meat and everything. He’d just gnaw a piece of meat off and gum it and swallow it down.”

Uncle Leon: “For three years when I was a little-bitty kid, me and Daddy and Mama lived in a tent. Daddy packed kerosene and ashes down as our floor—shiny gray like cement. I think the kerosene kept bugs away.”

Aunt Alta Mae (my father’s twin sister): “One evening, when it was getting to be dusky dark, Mama and Daddy and several of us kids was walking home from the cotton field, and it started hailing real bad. I saw one hailstone as big as a trailer hitch. We all sheltered in a thick fencerow and waited for it to pass. When we come out, the air was full of white feathers, and there was dead geese everywhere, scattered all over our forty. Daddy gathered up some in his pick sack for us to cook.”

Alton: “Dad and Maynard Barefield never got along too well. Their properties joined on the east side of Mama and Daddy’s forty, and there was a fence between the two properties. And this horse of ours named Buck had his head between the barbed wire eating grass. Since he was eating on Barefield’s side of the fence, why, he just opened fire on him. Looked like buckshot to me. So the horse, out of panic, ran at a full gait back up towards the house and jumped the fence that separated our backyard from our pasture, and run into the front yard where Daddy was. And the blood was just shooting out, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty feet, it looked like, every time his heart would beat. It was pitiful. And he had so many holes in him that there was no way to save the horse, but Daddy couldn’t shoot him. Just couldn’t pull the trigger. You get attached to animals, especially when you make a living with them and depend on them. And looked like the old horse’s eyes was, you know, ‘Do something to help me.’ And there was nothing to do. It’s funny how animals have a—I think they have a sense that they’re hurt really bad. Daddy got Bob Houston, Laverta’s first husband, to come over and put him down.”

Uncle John: “One morning I climbed away up high in the toothache tree, and I looked down and seen Daddy arranging and rearranging a stack of firewood to make it look just so. I never could figure out what he was up to.”

Aunt Charlene: “Daddy could strictly play down the glory. He rigged him up a homemade brace that set down over his shoulders and held the French harp up to his lips. That way, he kept his hands free so he could pick his guitar.”

Alton: “Daddy couldn’t afford good, thick socks or insulated boots, so on a cold fall night, he’d wrap his feet up in newspaper and put his knee boots on and go out scrapping, stripping bolls. Regularly cotton would bring thirty cents a pound, but after it was picked once and you were stripping bolls, you’d only get about ten cents a pound. It was a lot of work for a little of nothing, but he’d be out there with a pick sack late at night when water was standing in the rows and frozen to a solid sheet of ice.”

Uncle John: “I’ve seen Daddy laying in the bed holding his twelve-gauge, long-tongue shotgun up and down his chest with the barrel under his chin and the hammer back. I’ve seen him pour a quart of gasoline in a jar and drink it down. Mama made him swallow raw eggs so he would throw up. But the worst memory of all was one afternoon, along about dusk, when the whole family was out in the yard, and Mama and Daddy had a round. Daddy took his twelve-gauge and walked along the levee clean over to the other side of the rice field, out of sight, and fired the gun. Evidently he just shot it into the air, but we didn’t know that. I reckon he was trying to shock Mama or God or somebody into showing him some pity. But there we were, just little kids, running around, panicking: ‘Daddy’s dead! Daddy’s done gone and shot his self!’”

An excerpt from a prison letter from Aunt Laverta to Aunt Charlene—

Dad used to cut us a limb off of Our Big Old Cedar tree over in the back field for a Xmas tree. I can still amagin that I can smell the cedar scent at Xmas time, It Was the Only Kind we had, And you know a person always thinks of home at Xmas time.

They sure did put all the Magic in Xmas for us kids, Dad would take Red hot Coals of fire out of the Old Box heater, lay them on the chop block & he would draw back & hit them with the side of the ax or with a sledge hammer, the sparks at night Were so pretty, then all of a sudden Mom would come out & join in the fun, And then not long afterwards while we were still watching the fireworks, we would hear a stick of wood hit the side of the house or some sorta noise, any way we knew that had to be Old Santa Clause, then we would run into the house fast as we could go to see what Old Santa had left for us, Most of the time I’d get a doll & set of dishes, but one year when you was a baby, the bowl-weavels got the cotton, and all we got was a pr. of jersie gloves to pull the nottie bowls of cotton with, we felt so let down & sad, but that was Only one, we had a lot of good ones, those were good days, Well, I just looked out the window & Its snowing now, so that Completes the story I just told you and it is all a true story. Guess I’ll close for now Sis, have a Very Merry Xmas & May God Bless all of you, By far my worst Xmas ever. Your Sister.

Assimilation remix—
     Word I was in my life alone,
     Word I had no one left  . . .
          —Robert Frost, “Bereft”

Kentucky fictioneer, my friend, old friend,
do you remember texting me
from Walmart last December?
“Out Christmas shopping,” you wrote,
“I have come to the conclusion that this country is
done for.”
I texted, “What do you see?”
“General malaise,” you answered.
“Gawking droolers jean-clad and florid.
Gaudy, fat wives
and aghast husbands clutching
scented candles.
Done for.”

As I received these magical tidings,
I was in the house
alone, per usual. I was standing before a
mirror, my face all santa-claused
with shaving cream. Razor to my neck.
How, I asked myself, does one
come through the holidays?

It takes a wondervillage. Which,
Sylvester Peoples notwithstanding, I am not.

The Christmas onslaught comes
again, and here we are, bud, one year closer
to our funerals, eschewing candlehood
and yet a little envious. You ask me,
“Does our work amount to anything?
What would our grandfathers think?”
You say you’re putting down your pen for good.

I’m in the house alone. The night
is quiet, and I can’t fight off your questions.
I’m thinking about mysterious old Herbert Edward.
He was a man. It’s hard
for me to strip him back to that.
Not merely a son, father, husband, grandfather.
A man.
An artist, too. A wizard
with a French harp and a sculptor with a broadax.
He knew nothing of Georges Braque
or Violin and Candlestick, but Uncle John says
from high in the toothache tree, you could catch him doing
some beautiful country cubism, working that rick of wood.

Last time I travelled home, I traipsed out to the swamp—
stopped and wondered
at a cypress trimmed
with colorful bobbers and shiny spinners and lures.
I hung my share of bobbers in that tree.
Me and Herbert Edward used to fish there,
different sloughs. I can still see him
coming across that scope of woods
with a shimmering string of bream.

I used to go out there in winter as a boy
to love the quiet. To sit by the water
and warm my hands in a dog’s fur.
To see the accidental Christmas tree.
With only my dad between
me and Herbert Edward, I’ve had, most days,
an obscenely easy life.

I wrap my feet in newspaper
never, put my boots on, go out in the freezing rain
to scrap cotton when the middles are solid ice,
and come back late, icicles hanging off my snap-bill leather cap
never. I stack ties on a trailer not
and sit up top with my little boy,
knowing neither he nor I can swim—
the water so deep, the mules
will have to get up on their hind legs and lunge
to ford the bayou

If ever my nonexistent family should have to make
a bumpy winter trip by ghost horse and ghost buggy,
I will do like Herbert Edward: heat rocks
in the old box heater, wrap them
in gunnysacks, and set them
in the floorboard. That way, my playlike wife and kids
can warm their playlike feet.

The other night, my girlfriend and I drove out of town
to see her ninety-year-old aunt.
Blood-slush cold outside. Icy raindrops,
all that bling on the trees. Luckily, my car
has heat, even heated seats. The roads were slick silver,
but we made it. Once there, my girlfriend
mostly played with the pets. The aunt and I talked
for over an hour, and she was, in a word,
unimpressed. She told my girlfriend later,
“That so-called man of yours
sat right there in my living room and watched
the fire go out.” She paused—
let the outrage sink in. “And when we shook good-by,”
she summed me up, “his hands were soft as snow.”

I’m a walking white Christmas,
here in my obscenely easy life. But friend, old friend,
Kentucky fictioneer, the words you write
about your hurting hills
bring me closer
to Grandpa. They remind me what it takes, what
wrenching sacrifice, to keep
the new years coming
with their facile firework shows. You help me,
when I see those red sprays of light,
to remember Buck’s blood,
and in each pop like distant gunfire,
to hear a proud man saying please.

Herbert Edward asked your questions. I could read them
in his sad squint. He probably felt like a failure
when he scooped those red hot coals of fire,
placed them on the chopping block, and pounded
the holy Christmas out of them.
The pitifulness.

Every day, we draw back
and strike again to spark the dark.
Unbearable anticlimax. Words
return unto us
void. The child for whom we write
grows old and sins
and spends Christmas away from home, in a cold place
with kerosene and ashes underfoot.
Animals have a—I think they have a sense
that they’re hurt really bad.
But maybe
in that tent, that Pine Bluff penitentiary,
when snow comes fluttering down like feathers,
the child remembers.
Let him taste Kentucky Wonder,
smell fresh cedar on your ax.  end  

return to top