Previously in Calvin’s Ghost – 4 / Freedom
In the spring of 1972, when Eli was 11 approaching 12, Harvard sociology professor Orlando Patterson arrived in town to lecture on research that would form the basis for his landmark book, Slavery and Social Death. Lando, whom Tobias knew well, joined the Wheeler family for dinner.
Tobias dropped the news about their eminent dinner guest on Martha at the last minute, routing her from the tiny artist’s studio behind the house. Sighing, but compliant, Martha dutifully drove to the A&P and the liquor store, stocking up on beer, wine, and spirits that Tobias expected to trot out for his guests (although Tobias remained, always, exclusively a bourbon man).
Given the time pressure, the dinner, a mélange of creamed spinach, overcooked rice, and dry chicken, did not turn out well. What made things worse, of course, were the insufficiency of the portions. Both the qualities and quantities of the food left Tobias very much on edge, not just with Martha, but with his children, all of whom, in his meal-despairing state of mind, suddenly reflected poorly on him in front of his much-admired friend.
Tobias scowled at his two younger children, who were pulling each other’s ears and giggling. “Lawrence and Evangeline! Time for bed! You head upstairs. Mommy will draw your bath.” He directed a meaningful look into the kitchen, where Martha was already rinsing dishes.
With long flappy arms and splayed hands, Lawrence affectionately paddled his father’s knees. “Daddy, Eli will head upstairs, too, right?”
Tobias recoiled. “Eli can stay. He’s in 6th grade. He’s old enough to listen to me and Lando swap stories. Aren’t you, son?” Tobias cuffed Eli, with a smile, partly in jest, but hard enough to make the proposition an order, not a request.
* * *
Eli ignored Lawrence. He ignored his father. Eli drifted away, as he now often did when tension in his house ratcheted. He was thinking about Dab Carter, his 6th-grade classmate, an impossibly muscled black kid who sat next to Eli at the back of the science classroom during the last period of the school day. Dab was friendly enough. Eli’s gimp aroused his curiosity. But he’d recently taken to hitting up Eli for money as the clock ticked toward 2:30 and the prospect of release.
“You got my quarter, Wheeler?” he drawled quietly, leaning into Eli. Then like a striking cobra he shot out the Thor-like hammer fist attached to his short, massive right arm and thumped the writing desk attached to Eli’s chair. Thumped it so hard, the chair tipped, hurling Eli to the floor. Eli had no clue how a 12-year old boy could be so strong (although it would have been no surprise had Dab been 15 or 16, given his ongoing patter about matters like wet dreams that Eli could barely comprehend).
Mrs. Schmidt, whose metronomic feminine sway fascinated both Dab and Eli (and provided the basis for whatever bond beyond the exchange of quarters they shared), heaved her bosom and cooed gently at Dab to settle down. The other students tittered. Eli scrabbled back into his chair and Dab whispered into his ear, “My quarter, man. I’m counting. You owe me three dollars now, bro.” He’d then pull a 10-penny nail from his pocket, slip it between bicep-like thumb and two stubby fingers, and casually bend it to a 90-degree angle for Eli’s benefit. “This nail, man. This be you if you don’t pay me.” Eli could never tell if Dab was teasing him or serious. But he wasn’t anxious to find out.
Dab Carter’s shakedown was where Eli’s young mind drifted, certainly an unlikely escape from, but preferable to, listening to his brother and father collide and tumble.
* * *
“Let the little ones stay for a bit, Tobias,” Lando drawled softly, his lush Caribbean accent to Eli’s young ears deliciously urbane. “No hurry, now. How often do they see their Uncle Lando? Evangeline? Come here, sweetie.”
Evangeline, cute as a button, slid from her chair and leaped like a fairy into Lando’s lap. He chuckled softly and drew her gaze to his. “You’ve such pretty blue eyes, darling,” he said.
Evangeline laughed. “You’ve such pretty brown eyes, darling,” she told Lando.
Attention-starved Lawrence awkwardly clambered from his chair and lurched toward Lando. He poked Lando’s chest. “Ha-ha. I’m drawing your bath, Lando! Ha-ha.”
“Lawrence! Step away from Lando. Lawrence!” Tobias reached out to grab Lawrence by the scruff of his neck, but he danced away with antic glee.
Evangeline, mindful of her advantage, echoed her father. “Lawrence, you’re a bad boy.”
Lawrence spun and slapped Evangeline in the face. He laughed, seemingly not fully aware of what he’d just done. “No, Evangeline. You’re a bad boy!”
Tobias reclaimed himself almost immediately and returned his full attention to Lando, but not before Eli also witnessed the impact of his glance on Lawrence, the inward collapse of Lawrence’s mind, the connecting threads to his father clipped like winter roses. Tobias had banished Lawrence, as he had at times threatened to banish Eli, and this banishment was in no way an act easily subject to repair. For Lawrence, collapsing, had not received from his father a directive to examine his guilt for commission of a specific act. Lawrence, collapsing, received a different message from his father, which communicated withdrawal of a sustaining love, rejection of his whole person. In that moment, Lawrence lost his humanity. Not lost, perhaps. Something even more terrible transpired. In that moment, Tobias denied Lawrence his humanity.
Within seconds, Martha had shepherded Lawrence and Evangeline up the broad, carpeted stairs to the safety of the second floor. Lando had already begun to entertain Tobias with extemporaneous thoughts on the social meaning of cricket for Afro-Caribbean boys and men. For Lando and Tobias, sipping their smooth liquor and slipping into comfortable, amused conversation about their intellectual adventures, the evening had just begun. They did not hear, or chose not to hear, the sobs of Tobias’s second son as his mother tenderly slipped off his shirt and pants and helped him step into the bath with his younger sister.
* * *
Eli’s recovery from reconstructive knee surgery had left him horizontal in the hospital for three weeks, his parents sitting with him for hours each day, their brows emblazoned with concern. This concern, Eli discovered, creating opportunity for a parlay in which theatrical moans and pained movements earned him a succession of gifts straight off the spheroid black and white television screen in the Wheeler family living room. These gifts, themselves, arcana of the interstitial commercial moments of easy-going frontier dramas (Daniel Boone, Bonanza) and goofball military sitcoms (Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy) Eli so loved as a young boy.
The action doll ads unlocked for Eli an unalienated, spiritually rigorous imperial sensibility, a vision of American apotheosis captured in the thrilling product jingles and plastic features and motions of G.I. Joe, Johnny West, and Chief Cherokee. Heralding for Eli a permanent adolescence of glorious, unhinged, yet harmless mayhem.
G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe / fighting man from head to toe.
A fight to the finish, as you can see / between Johnny West and Chief Cherokee.
And a fight to the finish it was, once Eli returned home from the hospital. Eli and younger brother Lawrence played for hours with their action figure dolls, dumping Lincoln Logs from the toy barrel to construct forts and outposts across the carpets of the second-floor sitting room of their house, contested terrain over which Johnny West and Chief Cherokee fought bitterly.
On the evening Orlando Patterson joined the Wheeler tribe for dinner, Eli pedaled home from the vacant lot where he and some friends had been riding a two-stroke minibike, a recent birthday gift to one of the boys. Eli arrived at his house with the plunging dusk and when he burst through the kitchen door, there was Lawrence, standing on a chair he’d pushed next to the stove, stirring waxy, macerated remains of Chief Cherokee into a saucepan. “Ha-ha, Eli,” Lawrence said, turning toward Eli as he stirred, the petroleum stench rising like dragon’s breath from the pan. “Chief Cherokee’s an Indian Giver! Ha-ha.”
The stench lingered, applying a sulfurous undercoating to a social occasion and to a meal already cobbled together under duress, this liquefying doll forever a toxic varnish upon Eli’s childhood memories of Orlando Patterson.
Next in Calvin’s Ghost – 6 / Northeast Corridor