Family of Saints
Grandmother had some sort of power over Dad. Maybe it came to her with age. She was eighty-eight years old, born in the last years of the 19th century, and was a mobile, keen, blunt Texas lady. From age four to eighteen, she lived in a Southern Baptist orphanage north of Dallas, where she developed what Dad thought were her ridiculous hard-shell ways. Her parents were British immigrants; her father a struggling preacher and fledgling farmer, and her mother an asthmatic woman prone to bouts of weakness and bed-rest. The hard life on the Texas prairie was too much for them. A wealthy playboy uncle, the opposite of his brother's stern piety, paid for Grandmother to attend the Texas Women's College, where she earned a degree in the unlady-like field of finance. Of course, in the early 20th century, jobs for women in the financial world were limited. Grandmother had worked at the First National Bank in Denton, where she was the first bank teller with a degree.
And that's where she met Grandfather: Hampton Royal, a squatty man of thirty-five, who always used her window, no matter how long the line, in order to allow the tall red-head to serve him. Her uncle, who never offered to take her in, gave Grandmother an inheritance of three-thousand dollars when she graduated college. After many dogged attempts for dates from Hampton, she finally agreed; and after their initial date, numerous marriage proposals soon followed, and Grandmother, after a year, relented. Then, what Grandmother had feared happened: Hampton asked for her inheritance. She put him off for months, but Hampton, as she well knew, was persistent. Against her better judgment and to keep peace in her household, she gave him the start-up capital for his first sawmills. Five years later Hampton, over a steak dinner, handed her a fat envelope, her name, Bernice, scrawled in his chicken-scratch on the outside. She counted it, then and there. Ten thousand dollars, in one hundred-dollar bills, bound and crisp from the bank's vault. Grandfather saw her smile and said: "I pay pretty good interest, huh?"
"I say so, sir." A tear came to her eye.
In those five years, Grandfather had turned the three thousand dollars into a quarter-million; in east Texas he had sawmills and in west Texas oil wells. Grandmother quit her job at the bank the following day and hired a Creole cook. Other children knew fairy-tales. I knew the Royal family history.
Grandmother lived on the top floor of a twenty-story high-rise, next to a city park and, of course, her church, Amarillo First Baptist. The street next to the park was one of the original cobblestone streets of Amarillo, and that seemed fitting: Grandmother and the street were two functioning relics living side by side. On past visits to Grandmother's, Dad took me to the park and pushed me on the swings. On this visit, with the serious talk of the family's religious direction at stake, I didn't think I would get a chance to play in the park.
After Grandfather passed in 1955, Grandmother traveled the world, bringing her daughter Minnie, who in the 1950s was newly married to Brent, with her, while Dad drove America's highways in his big rig and moved from wife to wife. Grandmother's top-floor apartment bore the proof of her travels: a thick bright ornate Japanese rug dominated the center of the living room, a Swiss cuckoo clock hanged over the dining table, two lighted shelves of Faberge eggs, handmade porcelain figurines from Germany, cut-crystal from Austria. I knew, after several hand slaps and spankings as a toddler, not to touch any of this.
Aunt Minnie was Dad's younger sister. They despised each other and their hatred started young. When Dad was in first-grade he had to bring his little sister, all of four years old, with him to school after lunch because his mother held Bible study at home for the women of her congregation. At school, Aunt Minnie was hard headed and wouldn't listen to Dad, and she liked to get dirty so big brother would have to clean her up at school, embarrassing him in front of his friends.
That's why I was shocked to see Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent grinning behind Grandmother as she opened her apartment door.
"What the hell are they doing here?" Dad asked.
"It is good to see you too, son," Grandmother said. "And control that ribald tongue of yours as long as you are here."
Grandmother and Mom hugged each other. Grandmother was a tall woman, standing barely under six feet, with sinuous limbs, a narrow waist, sturdy shoulders. She stood between Dad and Aunt Minnie like a referee at a heavyweight match, making sure no punches were thrown until the bout officially began.
"Son, I told you either we are all represented here, or none of us are represented. Minnie and Brent make up the other third of the family."
"May be your family," Dad said, carrying luggage to the bedroom. "I'm glad to see you too, Royal," Aunt Minnie said.
I never understood why Dad's sister always called him by his last name.
"How are you, little Wesley?" Aunt Minnie asked.
"Fine ma'am." I had seen Aunt Minnie once before when I was a toddler, but that memory was fuzzy. So this time I intently studied her image, and the first thing I noticed was how she looked just as old as Grandmother. Aunt Minnie's face was wrinkled and pale, and under her eyes were large dark troughs. She was Dad's younger sister, but even he looked younger than Aunt Minnie.
"You're getting big," Uncle Brent said, and he spoke slowly, at a pace where I knew what he was going to say before he got it out, so I knew what question was to follow. "Are you playing football yet?"
"I'm not gonna let him," Dad said, coming back into the living room. "Brent, you see how messed up you are because of football. You think I'm gonna let that happen to my son?"
Uncle Brent was a large man, six-feet-four, weighed about two-hundred and fifty pounds, and had been a lineman for the Texas A&M football team in the late 1940s. Due to football, he had bad knees, and any time he tried to stand, he had to rock back and forth a few minutes in order to build up enough momentum to raise his large frame. Dad didn't like Uncle Brent, and their odium for one another began their senior years of high school, when Dad was transferred by Grandmother to the Texas Baptist Military Institute so he could help Aunt Minnie cope with life away from home as a new freshman. Uncle Brent had attended the Institute his entire scholastic career, was the largest boy in the school, captain of the football team and dating Dad's little sister, so he took it upon himself to properly haze Dad.
"You're not gonna haze me," Dad had told him. "I came from a real military school and had my hazing there."
Uncle Brent would not take No for an answer, and one day in the locker room after gym class he pushed the point. Dad, the previous summer had worked in the oilfield with his father's work crews, and he had the calluses, popping veins, and tight muscles to prove it. Uncle Brent, being larger, thought he could manhandle Dad with wrestling holds. But Dad easily picked up the larger boy, threw him against the wall, punched him in the kidneys till Uncle Brent dropped to his knees; then Dad turned him around and punched his face crimson.
"How have you been, Raynell?" Uncle Brent hugged Mom and lightly kissed her cheek.
"Fine. I've been fine. Just trying to keep these two men in check."
"I'm sure you are exhausted from your trip," Aunt Minnie said. "Why don't you go lie down and then we'll visit and have dinner after you're rested."
"I could use a little shut eye," Dad said. "What you say, gal?"
"A nap would do me good. You come lay down too, Wesley."
"I would like to speak with Master Wesley," Grandmother said.
"What about?" Dad asked.
"Can not a grandmother simply visit with her grandson whom she rarely sees?"
That sounded innocent enough, but I knew it wasn't true. Grandmother would pump me for information about Dad, about Mom, about the Mormons, and I wasn't sure what I'd tell her. The truth would be nice, but the truth could get us all in trouble. Grandmother, I knew, wouldn't like to hear that Mom, on several occasions, had tried to leave Dad. And Grandmother would not want to hear that if Mom left, I was planning on going with her.
"Brent and I are going to visit some old college friends in town," Aunt Minnie said.
"You mean go have some high-balls, don't you?" Dad said.
"Royal, I will not dignify that with an answer," Aunt Minnie said as she and Uncle Brent walked out.
Aunt Minnie, for all of Grandmother and Grandfather Royal's tee-totaling ways—the former out of religious principle and the other because it interfered with time he could use conducting business—was a lush. At least that's what Dad called her. He said she'd been drinking since she was sixteen and hadn't slacked off a bit. But alcohol was forbidden from crossing Grandmother's door, and this was a good thing: I knew Aunt Minnie wouldn't stay more than a few days. Then my parents and I could enjoy our visit to Grandmother's—as much as that would be possible.
Grandmother sat in a wingback chair and next to it was a large Bible with a creased spine, proof that it was often consulted. I sat on a turquoise loveseat left of Grandmother.
"Mind your posture, Master Wesley. You do not want to be a stooped man before you are even a man. Your grandfather, now there was a man who carried himself regally. Although I was taller than he, he always stood erect, demanding other's respect. You could have learned a lot from him, Master Wesley."
"Why do you call me Master?"
A smile, like an egg yolk breaking, relaxed Grandmother's face. "Because that is what you were born to be. Master of the Royal fortune. Never forget young, Master, there are two types of people: followers and leaders. You were born to be a leader."
That was the same thing Dad always said, only in his diatribes he told me I was going down the path of a follower.
"Your grandfather built his fortune with only a third grade education. However, that man had a brilliant mind. Your father does as well, when he puts it to the correct tasks, instead of this Mormon foolishness. When did your father get it in his head to convert?"
"I'm not sure."
"Come now, Master Wesley. Royal men know each other. You had to have seen this coming."
"I guess it started a few months ago when this Mormon man came and bought some ducks," I said.
"That man was proselytizing. It was strange your father fell for it."
"Actually, it was Dad who asked him about the Mormon Church."
She was quiet for a short time, as if entering this new information into her mental ledger.
"Why do you think your father wants to join their church?"
To keep Mom from leaving him: that would have been the truth. Grandmother, the widow of a businessman: I knew the answer that would least upset her.
"Dad likes the practicality and frugality of the Mormons. They never build a church until they have all the money to pay for it in full." That was something the Elders had said one night. "And you'll never see a Mormon on welfare because they take care of their own. Plus, what Dad really likes about them, is that when they help one of the members out financially nothing is ever said about it. The person being helped isn't made to feel like a charity case. That's true religion, according to Dad."
"Sounds like a communist cult."
"What do you mean?"
"Isolating itself and its members from the rest of the world. That is dangerous, and it puts you under their total control."
"Just like the Royal family is under your total control."
"Master Wesley, it sounds as if you are one among their ranks. Have they gotten to you?"
"No. No, ma'am. They're just not as bad as you're making them sound."
"And how do you know how they are? Has your father had you gallivanting with Mormon children?"
"No, ma'am. The only Mormon family we know is childless.
Grandmother went through another silent spell and I thought that possibly our talk was over, but I was afraid to get up.
"What does your mother think of this?"
"You know what she thinks, Grandmother. That's why we're here."
"Watch your tone, Master Wesley. Remember who the elder is. And how do you know your mother contacted me?"
"I received your letter."
"You opened someone else's mail and read it?"
"The envelope was addressed to the Royals. And I am a Royal."
"Your father's tongue must be in your head too. But you had better control that smart-aleck tongue in my presence. You may be a big boy but you will never be too big for me to tan your backside. Remember your place. A Master you are destined to be, but you are not one yet, and you will never be master of me. Are we clear?"
"Now, with a reverent tongue tell me what your mother thinks of this conversion business."
"Mom said she was born Baptist and will die Baptist."
"Spoken like a true Christian lady. Continue."
"Well, Mom didn't want to investigate the Mormon Church at all. And once Dad convinced her to, she didn't want to start taking lessons from the missionaries, but Dad insisted." I took a breath. "Mom doesn't care for the Mormon Church but she likes the missionaries who have been teaching us. They're nice boys. College age. Clean cut."
"The devil comes in many disguises."
"I don't think Elder Sharp and Elder Hayes are the devil."
"You are not old enough to recognize hidden evil. And that is the most insidious type. It can sneak up on your soul, and you will not know until it is too late. Those Mormons and their perverted ways are blinding you to the truth."
"What truth is that? Baptist truth?"
"Biblical truth, which we Baptist know, and you would know if your father brought you to the proper church. And what did I tell you about that irreverent mouth? You must want me to take a strap to you. Maybe a few licks with one of your grandfather's belts would impart some wisdom on you and make you more respectful. One more outburst and that is what you will receive. Are we clear?"
Dad woke before Mom and joined Grandmother and me in the living room. Before Grandmother could take over the conversation, Dad started in about how much traveling Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent did. "They have been to every continent, and even chartered a plane to land and step foot on Antarctica for five minutes to make their claim official. Now that was pissing off good money. And why? So they can brag to their snooty drunk friends." Dad was also fond of pointing out their trips in which ill fortune struck them. "That trip to Hong Kong almost killed them when they came down with the flu and were bedridden for three months in a hospital before they could fly home. And, Mother, remember that emergency operation Brent had to have in Johannesburg. That South African doctor had rolled his guts back in him wrong. Mother, remember you had to wire them ten-thousand dollars to get them out of there and put Brent on an overnight flight to New York with a doctor and nurse accompanying him."
"It's not Christian to revel in the misfortunes of others," Grandmother said. "I wish you would try and get along with your sister. Next to me, she's the only family you have."
"My family's right here," Dad rubbed my head as he sat next to me on the love seat.
"Master Wesley is the next generation," Grandmother said, "but you have to try and get along with this generation of Royals."
"Minnie ain't no Royal," Dad said. "She stopped being one when she married that Kell."
"Her last name may have changed, but not her lineage." Grandmother straightened herself in the wingback chair. "All of us here are family. Let us, please, try to act like it."
Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent returned before Mom woke.
"So what old college friend did y'all go see?" Dad said. "Johnny Walker?"
"It's all right, Mother," Aunt Minnie said. She sat at the end of the sofa, the one nearest to Dad, and she leaned in his direction as she spoke: "Royal, you know I'm not simply here to antagonize you or your awful choice in churches. We also came down to tell Mother good-bye. Brent and I are leaving for France at the end of the week. We're staying through Thanksgiving."
"That's not long enough for me."
"Son, you would feel terrible if something happened to Minnie on her trip and those were your last words to her."
"I'm not that lucky."
"Son, do you have a heart?"
"Not for Minnie."
"If this is going to be your attitude," Grandmother said, "this is going to be an unpleasant visit."
"Everything is unpleasant with Minnie around."
"Stop this!" Grandmother rose from her chair. "You are acting like a spoiled, nasty little boy. And I did not raise you to be like that."
"Mother, you didn't raise me at all. You shipped me off to military school when I was in third grade. And Dad was off making money while you and Minnie spent it on clothes and trips. And where was I? At school nine months of the year, during which you never came and saw me, and during the summer I was stuck in the oilfield sweating my ass off!"
"What's all the commotion?" Mom asked.
"Royal is just throwing one of his tantrums," Aunt Minnie said. "Now we're supposed to feel sorry for him."
"You don't have to feel sorry for me. That's the last goddamn thing I want from you."
"That mouth, son. You will not talk like that under this roof."
"I apologize, Mother."
"So what do these Mormons believe," Aunt Minnie said, "other than having multiple wives. You better watch out, Raynell, Royal may try to replace you with a harem of younger women."
"I'm not worried about any women being able to fill my shoes."
Dad grinned at Aunt Minnie and put his arm around Mom as she stood next to him.
"Minnie," Dad said, "you ever wonder how two separate geographical locations that have nothing in common culturally could have similar architecture?"
"I won't be baited," Aunt Minnie said. "Please get to the point."
"Pyramids. You've been to Egypt and you've spent enough time drinking margaritas in Mexico, but in between rounds, did you ever wonder how pyramids came to be in both locations?"
"A pyramid is nothing but a fancy triangle, and the triangle is a common geometric shape. All cultures have them," Aunt Minnie said.
"What if the same people who built the pyramids in Egypt, built the ones in Mexico?"
"Egyptians in Mexico? Get real, Royal," Aunt Minnie said.
"The Egyptians didn't build the pyramids," Dad said. "The Jews did. And the Mormons believe that Lehi, a Jewish prophet, came to the New World, bringing the design for pyramids with him."
"That is a blatant Mormon lie," Grandmother said.
"How do you know, Mother?"
"There is no mention of it in the Bible."
"The Bible also doesn't mention Texas, but here we sit in it."
"What type of logic is that, son? Have those Mormons twisted your mind?"
"Maybe they've enlightened it."
"All I know for sure," Aunt Minnie said, "was that when we were down in Mexico visiting the pyramids, we had to walk up them in a zigzag formation."
"You walked that way because you were drunk," Dad said.
"Enough of this," Grandmother Royal said. "Since we cannot talk to each other civilly, we will watch television."
"Just don't put it on a preacher," Dad said.
"It is my television, son."
She flipped through the channels with astonishing speed for an older lady. Now I knew where Dad got his nervous channel changing ways. Grandmother finally stopped when she found a cooking show.
"Raynell will like this," Aunt Minnie said. "It's one of her people."
"He's not Cajun," Mom said.
"He sounds Cajun."
"That accent is put on."
"I admit," Aunt Minnie said, "his accent isn't the same as yours. Maybe you're not really Cajun."
"I'm Cajun all right. You can believe that. I was whipped by my teachers for speaking French in school. I know who I am."
"That is right," Aunt Minnie said. "You do speak a version of French. Brent and I are going to France at the end of the week, and I was wondering if you could tell me how to say 'Let's have fun' in French. Assuming you say it the same as the Europeans."
I wondered if Mom would tell her. Why should she? Aunt Minnie never did anything for Mom or had any contact with her. Mom sat forward, swallowed hard once, and in a clear voice said: "Lassiez les bon temps rouler."
"Slower," Aunt Minnie said.
"Dog gone, Minnie, you studied French from the time you started school until you left, and you still can't speak it," Dad said.
"It has been several decades since I studied French, Royal. To retain a language, one must use it daily. Now, Raynell, say it again, but slowly."
No kindness in her request: Aunt Minnie simply expected Mom to do it. Mom reached in her blouse pocket, removed a stick of gum, unwrapped it, took the time to refold the wrapper, slipped it back in her pocket, bent the piece of gum double, gently slid it into her mouth, and began slowly chewing.
"Please, Raynell," Grandmother said. "Say it again, but slowly for those of us with bad ears. I would love to be able to say that to my Bible study group when we meet later this week."
"For you, Mother Royal." Mom broke the French expression down into syllables.
With the French lesson, the TV was forgotten, and Uncle Brent and Dad, despite their mutual dislike, left the women and sat on the balcony in the cool, dry night air. I lay on the floor—the plush Oriental rug felt like a cloud—and had come into possession of the remote control, changing channels at my whim while listening to the women, with Mom, for once, the ringleader.
Grandmother, while her accent was not as good as Mom's, could get the expression out in one breath. Aunt Minnie, on the other hand, could not get her tongue under control.
"Write it down for me, Raynell," Aunt Minnie said.
I turned from the TV to see how Mom would handle this. Aunt Minnie, a slight smirk on her face, reached into her purse and handed Mom a pen and small pad. Mom chewed her gum rapidly and worry lines creased her lips. The pad had roses embroidered on the black felt cover and Mom scratched them with her thumbnail while spinning the pen between her fingers. With a deep swallow, Mom's gum was gone. I thought she'd reach in her pocket for another piece but instead she cleared her throat and said: "I can't write French."
"Can't write a language you speak?" Aunt Minnie let out a parched laugh.
At that moment I hated Aunt Minnie as much as Dad did.
Mom and Dad slept in a double bed and I was in another one just a few feet away. But I hadn't slept well because Grandmother had satin pillowcases and sheets on the bed, and I awoke numerous times during the night to find that I had slid to the foot of the bed. When I no longer heard Dad's teeth grinding, I knew he was awake, and I turned and faced their bed. Dad, his salt and pepper hair mussed on his head as he lay on his side, looked at me and said: "So what'd your grandmother pump out of you?"
"Nothing that she can use you against you, I don't think."
"Don't think? Why don't you know?" Dad's voice rose. "What'd you tell her?"
"That you asked Mr. Lawson how to find out more information about the Mormon Church. Except I didn't tell her Mr. Lawson's name."
"His name doesn't matter," Dad said, pushing himself up on an elbow. "What else?"
"I told her you liked the practicality of the Mormons, their thriftiness, and the way they take care of their members."
"What'd she say to that?"
"That they sounded like a communist cult."
Dad looked over his shoulder at Mom, whose back was turned to him. His voice was soft when he said: "She ask about your mama?"
"She wanted to know what Mom thought about all this, and I told her she was against it. But Grandmother already knew that."
"Anything else you remember?"
"Well, sounds like you did good. Now wash up."
Grandmother brought a plate of toast and the coffee pot to the dining table, where Dad sat scowling. She readied to pour him coffee, but he covered the cup with his hand. "I'll get some juice," Dad said, and strode into the kitchen and brought a carton of orange juice to the table and poured some for him and me.
"I will have some of that as well," Grandmother said, and placed the coffeepot on a pad on the table. "I have never been one for much coffee, but I know Brent and Minnie must have their single cup in the morning."
"That's to work loose all the cobwebs."
"Do not start on your sister this early in the morning, especially when she is not even awake to defend herself." Grandmother held a piece of toast by its corner, bit it, and didn't get crumbs on her lips. "I remember when you used to visit me, son, and the first thing you did when you woke was step out on the balcony and have that first cigarette of the day."
"Not anymore." Dad winked at me.
"So far that is the only good thing those Mormons have had you do. The good Lord knows I tried to get you stop that nasty habit."
"If that's what we're going to talk about this morning, I'd rather we didn't say anything."
"No need to be gruff," Grandmother said. "Talk about whatever you like."
"Last summer I had an ex-frogman from the Navy teach Wesley to scuba dive. They were in the swimming pool for the first lesson, and as Ted's talking Wesley's looking off at the passing cars on the highway. Ted finishes telling Wesley how to put on his mask and clean it; then he asks Wesley, who's steadily been looking off, what he just told him. Wesley looks him in the face and repeats it verbatim. Ted just shook his head and walked off saying, 'That boy's smart.'"
Grandmother didn't smile but cast an appraising look at me.
Dad always praised me to Grandmother, while at home he was always telling me I was too lazy and didn't pay attention and moved slower than smoke off summer shit. I supposed Dad bragged on me to Grandmother because he didn't want her thinking the Royal heir was sub-par. Aunt Minnie had a son, Brent Junior, who was in his forties, and Aunt Minnie would have liked for him to inherit the Royal fortune, but Brent Jr. was a Kell, and that family had a nice chunk of East Texas oil money because Granddad Kell discovered two separate oil reservoirs.
As much as Dad bragged on me, he liked to bad mouth Brent Jr. in front of Grandmother.
"Last time I saw him, that boy had hair down to his butt. It was a shame when he left his wife, and her carrying their first child, for that little hippie girl. Not only did he leave her, but also that chain of bookstores in Houston that you, Mother, had set him up with. Remember that?"
She looked at Dad. He smiled, big and broad, and she looked away. Dad had won this round.
That afternoon, at Dad's insistence, he and Uncle Brent went off together. They left a couple of hours after noon and were told by Grandmother to be back in time so everyone could go out to dinner together. At six-thirty and Dad and Uncle Brent still hadn't returned.
"I will give them until seven," Grandmother said. "If they are not back then, they do not eat dinner with us."
We all nodded our agreement.
Thirty minutes later Grandmother was behind the steering wheel of her silver Cadillac driving us to her favorite Mexican restaurant. The restaurant was upscale, with a lounge separated by a wall from the dining area, and Grandmother asked for us to be seated as far as possible from the lounge.
We sat at a round table near a large window overlooking the restaurant's courtyard, which was made to look like an old adobe town. I sat between Mom and Grandmother, and Aunt Minnie sat on the other side of her mother. A young Mexican man with shiny close-cropped hair was our waiter. Grandmother ordered iced tea.
"I'll have the same," Mom said.
"A good Mormon does not drink tea," Aunt Minnie said.
"I'm not a good Mormon, I'm not a bad Mormon. I'm not Mormon at all."
I ordered a Dr. Pepper, and Aunt Minnie got a grande margarita.
"There is no call for drinking," Grandmother said. "You were raised without alcohol."
"It is all part of Mexican food, Mother. Consider it a garnish."
"Parsley is a garnish," Mom said.
"You wouldn't know how to spell it."
"Shut up!" I said.
Grandmother slapped my shoulder with more might than an octogenarian should have. "You do not tell one of your elders to shut up. You must learn to show respect."
"She's not respecting Mom."
"Son, listen to your grandmother. She knows best."
Grandmother nodded contently, happy to have Mom's backing, but I didn't know what Mom was doing. Everything the adults did seemed wrong.
I remained quiet for the next few minutes, but Aunt Minnie, after she finished two margaritas before the food arrived, became more talkative.
"Royal is just doing this Mormon business to anger you, Mother. You know that and I know that. Isn't that correct, Raynell?"
"Royal has his reasons, and I'm sure they're more complicated than simply angering his mother. What do you think his reasons are, Mother Royal?"
Grandmother delicately patted the corner of her mouth with her cloth napkin, removing a dollop of salsa, before she spoke. "I asked Master Wesley and he claimed not to know. Upon further insistence from me, he gave an answer about Mormon's being frugal and caring for their own." Grandmother looked at me, her gray eyes asking: Would you like to change your answer? I stared into her eyes and straightened my back for emphasis.
"Could there be a more aggravating group than the Mormons?" Aunt Minnie said, her wrinkled face flushed.
"I believe Mother Royal was speaking."
"You are mistaken, dear. My mother was finished."
"Actually, I was not. That enormous drink in front of you must be getting the best of you, Minnie."
"But imagine rough talking Royal wanting to join the holier-than-thou Mormons," Aunt Minnie said. "It isn't a natural fit."
"Are you saying your brother can't be holy?" Mom asked.
"He can be anything he chooses to be, but holy has never been one of his choices," Aunt Minnie said, and snapped her fingers for the waiter, raising her empty margarita glass.
"Those are several garnishes," Mom said, "and we haven't even had our meal yet."
"Don't worry about my garnishes."
"Well, I will," Grandmother said. "Sometimes I think Royal is correct about you and your drinking."
I wondered if Grandmother would have said that in front of Dad. When we were all together it seemed that Grandmother, as Dad always said, did favor Aunt Minnie. Now Grandmother had uttered a bombshell, which I intended to remember and pass on to Dad, when he returned.
The waiter brought Aunt Minnie's drink along with our food: enchiladas in red sauce for Mom and Grandmother Royal, soft chicken tacos for me, and steak fajitas for Aunt Minnie. Love of steak was one characteristic Dad and his sister shared. With eating came silence, which I didn't want now that Grandmother seemed to be on Dad's side. I waited until all of them were deep in the reverie of chewing before I said: "With your drinking, Aunt Minnie, you'd never be able to become a Mormon."
Mom's face cracked into a combination snicker and condemnation; Grandmother, fork in hand, landed another slap on me, but this one lacked the force of her earlier blow.
Aunt Minnie quickly swallowed her food and said: "Just like your dad. Can't mind your tongue. And for your information, young man, I do not want to join that ridiculous church of bigamist."
"Wesley," Mom said, "eat your food and be quiet." Under the table, Mom nudged me with her knee.
When the check came, Mom offered to pay but Grandmother wouldn't hear of it. Her treat, she said, then raised her hand for the waiter. "Take these margaritas off the bill. I will not pay for alchol."
Aunt Minnie's wrinkled face flamed.
To my disappointment, when we returned the apartment was void of Dad and Uncle Brent. Aunt Minnie excused herself to the bedroom, saying she was going to wash her face, but I thought she was going to lie down and rest off those four margaritas—she'd had another with her fajitas.
"Rouse me if the boys return at a decent hour," Aunt Minnie said.
An hour later, no one had to rouse her. Dad's voice boomed in the hallway. "Goddammit, that's not the door." Uncle Brent's slow speech followed at a lower decibel, but Dad's voice drowned him out. "I know where my mother lives. Hell, I was coming here before you."
"But I've been here more times than you," Uncle Brent said.
"Good Heavens," Grandmother said, opening the door. "Come in immediately! You will wake the entire floor."
"Hell, these old folks need to be woke," Dad said. "Bring some life to 'em."
"Do not worry about the life in my neighbors," Grandmother said, looking both ways down the hall before shutting and bolting the door. "You two owe me and your wives an apology."
"For what?" Dad said, swaying as he walked into the living room.
"For making us late to dinner, and then not joining us at the meal."
"Once we didn't show," Dad said, "I figured you'd go on and eat. There's no need to worry about us."
"Worry about you is all I can seem to do," Grandmother said, walking past Uncle Brent and Dad, standing next to Mom in the center of the living room.
Aunt Minnie came out of the bedroom in a silk robe the color of salmon and stood next to Grandmother.
"What is that sour smell?" Grandmother said.
"What smell?" Dad said, grinning like a mischievous child.
"The one of which you reek. Both of you are drunk."
"Mother, Brent may be drunk, but I am not." Dad slightly pushed Uncle Brent, who chuckled and pushed him back.
"Son, do not lie. As much as I abhor alcohol, I know a drunk, and standing in front of me are two drunken men."
"A drunk wanna-be Mormon. Only Royal," Aunt Minnie said.
"Sister, you're husband is drunk too."
"But you got me drunk," Uncle Brent said.
"Like hell I did. You got yourself drunk like you do every day with Minnie."
"Your sister and I do not get drunk every day."
"Every other day, then. But you drink every damn day. Hell, Minnie's a lush."
"I'm tired of you downing my wife."
"She was my worthless sister before she was your drunk-ass wife."
Uncle Brent pushed Dad, and this time he wasn't playing. Dad stepped back, first one step, then two, and on the third step he gathered his balance. Uncle Brent took a step towards him and Dad snapped a punch; Uncle Brent grabbed his eye and yelled out.
"You want some more?" Dad yelled. "I'll whip your ass just like I did at that panty-waist school. Big bastard like you can't fight a lick."
"Wesley Hampton Royal Sr.!" Grandmother roared. "This barbaric behavior will not continue. Fighting, both of you, in front of your wives. And you, son, in front of Wesley Jr. I am of the mind to ask you to leave."
"Fine by me."
"That's ok," Aunt Minnie said. "We'll get a hotel room tonight. Come on, Brent, help me get our bags."
"Are you happy now, son? You have driven them out."
Dad was silent and wouldn't make eye contact with Grandmother.
Aunt Minnie returned from the bedroom dressed, carrying her beige overnight bag, and Uncle Brent walked behind her with a suitcase in each hand.
"You do not have to leave," Grandmother said.
"It's for the best," Aunt Minnie said. She stopped at the door and hugged her mother. "We'll return in the morning, after everyone has sobered up and cooled off." Aunt Minnie glared at Dad when she said this, and then they were out the door.
"Son, really. Why did you do that? You know Brent has a weakness for liquor."
"I didn't get him drunk, Mother!" Dad stormed out to the balcony.
"I can do nothing with him," Grandmother said.
"I know what you mean," Mom said, and went to the bedroom.
"I am sorry you had to witness this, Master Wesley. I hope, however, it teaches you a lesson. Shows you how the demon alcohol twists a man, makes him evil and uncaring. But, of course, for your father that is not difficult to do."
I agreed with Grandmother and felt no inclination to defend Dad.
"Go to bed, Master Wesley. Sleep and get this memory out of your mind." Grandmother hugged me tightly and lightly kissed my forehead. She looked out the sliding glass door at Dad, shook her head, and went to her bedroom.
I had to talk to Dad.
The night air was cool and golden lightning cracked and splayed in the distance. Dad's back was to me and his hands were on the rail.
"Did you do it on purpose?" I asked.
"Do what on purpose?"
"Get Uncle Brent drunk just to start a fight."
"I didn't need to get him drunk to do that."
"Why were you drinking anyway? You know, if you're going to join the Mormon Church, you're not supposed to."
"There are lots of things we're not supposed to do."
"Do really want to join their church, or is just a big put on like Grandmother thinks?"
"I told you I wanted to join the Mormon Church."
"But was it the truth?"
"You calling me a liar?"
"No, sir. But you show up tipsy tonight. What am I to think?"
"Think . . . " Dad reached his arm out and wrapped it around my neck. "No. Don't think, know that I love you and your mama and will do anything to keep us together."
"But will joining the Mormon Church do that?"
"I think so."
"But Mom doesn't want to. Aren't you afraid it will drive her away?"
"I think she's starting to understand my reasons, starting to see how the Church will be good for us. Don't you see how your mama likes Elders Sharp and Hayes? Pretty soon she'll feel the same way about the entire Church."
"How can you be sure?"
"I've got to be. I don't want to lose you or her."
A flash of lightning lit the sky behind Dad's head and I saw tears on his cheeks. The Elders spoke of the Holy Spirit and how you could feel it like a power surging through your body. I imagined it was a power like lightning, and I felt it that night coming through Dad's words and touch. If we joined the Mormon Church, we could have this feeling all the time; Mom and I wouldn't have to run away and join her family in Louisiana.
The next morning Mom and I were forced awake by Dad, who lay with his arms and legs woven among the sheets and snoring like a chainsaw. Mom pointed to the bedroom door and met me there. Placing her arm around me, she whispered: "I'm sorry you saw your daddy like that last night."
"It's not the first time."
"A boy shouldn't have to say that about his daddy."
"I think Dad is sorry for what he did."
"Your daddy ain't never been sorry for hurting people."
"He cried last night. Out on the balcony. I've never seen him cry."
"That is rare. But you gotta be careful. Your daddy knows how to play people."
"He wasn't playing me last night. He really wants you and him to stay together. For us to stay a family."
"I'd like to believe that, but before I do, he'll have to make some changes."
"But he is changing. He quit smoking."
"And till last night he'd quit drinking. I don't want you to hate your daddy; I just want you to be on guard against him. Now let's go see if your grandmother is awake."
The cuckoo clock clicked. Nine-thirty. Grandmother sat in her wingback chair, reading glasses low on her nose, and Bible open in her lap. When she saw us she marked her place and closed the book.
"Good morning." Her voice was raspy. "Where's your father?"
"He's still sleeping," I said.
"He will not go out and get drunk and then expect to lie around." Grandmother stood, Bible in hand, and pushed the bedroom door open; it banged against the door jamb, but didn't disturb Dad. "Get up, son!" Dad only snored more. "Son, wake up!" Still no stirring. Grandmother raised the Bible; its gilded edged pages sparkled above her head before slapping Dad's exposed leg. The blow made him recoil, but not awaken. Grandmother brought the Bible up again and landed repeated blows on Dad's legs, all the while shouting "Awaken!"
"What the goddamn hell?"
"No cursing!" Grandmother popped him on the belly. "Now get up and take a shower. You smell like a common rummy." Grandmother stopped at the bedroom door and looked back at Dad, who had flopped his way free of the sheets and was steadying himself to stand. "I will expect you at the breakfast table in a half hour."
Just as Grandmother had commanded, Dad joined us at the breakfast table, and sat across from his mother. His hair was slicked back, his cheeks and jowls smooth with a fresh shave, and a light dash of English Leather filled the air around him. Only his eyes, red and streaked, bore witness to his night's bacchanalian activity.
"Son, you should not have attacked your brother-in-law," Grandmother said, passing him the orange juice carton. "And you should not have taken Brent out drinking."
"He's a grown man, Mother. It's not my place to monitor him."
"But he is your sister's husband, which makes him family, and you should look after him," Grandmother said.
"Is that why you beat me awake, to bring up news which I have no interest in discussing?"
"Then what would you prefer to talk about, son?"
"I'd prefer silence."
"Hangover got you?" Mom asked.
"I don't need any lip from you either. Remember: you're the reason we're here."
"No, son, your stubbornness and renegade ways are the reason you are here. Do not blame your wife for something you brought on yourself."
"If she hadn't gone behind my back, we wouldn't be here."
"It is comforting to know that my son only comes to visit when he is made to do so. By the way, here is your check. I believe this covers you for the week of business you are missing." Grandmother laid the check in the center of the table.
"You made your mother pay you to come see her?" Mom said.
"We're losing money having the restaurant shut down. And I didn't make her. She offered."
"But you accepted. Do you have any love in you?"
"He loves us," I said. "That's why he wants us to become Mormon."
"Master Wesley, this is an adult conversation. Stay out of it. In fact, if you are finished with your toast and juice, excuse yourself from the table."
"Wait a minute, Mother. You said we all had a-say in this. Go ahead, son."
They all stared at me. Agree with Dad, and go against Mom and anger Grandmother. Agree with Mom and Grandmother, and I would hurt Dad, which was easier to do when he yelled and cursed at me, not when he was being teamed up on.
"The Mormons, from what I can tell, aren't all bad."
Mom and Grandmother both lost a little hue in their faces. Dad grinned narrowly.
"They're worth looking into, but I'm not saying I'm ready to become one right now." Dad's grin vanished, and Mom and Grandmother regained a touch of their color.
"You see," Grandmother said, "you are confusing Master Wesley. He does not know what is right and what is wrong."
"He knows right from wrong," Dad said. "The boy's just afraid to speak up for what he believes in." Dad glared at me as he left the dining table and walked out of the apartment.
I ran after Dad, ignoring Mom's and Grandmother's calls for me to come back, let your daddy go, he will be back once he cools off. But I feared that Dad, after being betrayed by me, would never return. I didn't see Dad in the hall, so I ran to the elevator, which was going down. I ran to the stairwell at the end of the hall, hoping I could catch Dad in the lobby before he made it outside.
The stairs were a depressing concrete gray and close together. So close, in fact, that I thought I could skip every other one and make it down quicker, which worked for the first few flights, but my momentum got the best of me, and between floors eleven and ten my left heel grazed the middle step, sending me head first into a fall that was part flip and belly-flop. I landed on my shoulder and head on the riser between the floors. My first thought wasn't of injury but what Dad would say if he saw me: Damn clumsy boy got the grace of a pregnant sow; well, hell, if you ain't hurt, get your fat ass up. And that's what I did.
Taking the last ten floors one stair at a time slowed me down, so when I came to the first floor, I burst through the stairwell door, sweating and panting and praying, to either the Mormon or Baptist God, that Dad would have been held up on the elevator by some old people slowly getting on and off the elevator with their canes and unsteady walkers. No such luck. Dad wasn't in the lobby; so I ran to the parking lot, hoping to catch him before he got in the station wagon. Our car still sat under the aluminum carport for visitors. I couldn't see Dad.
Across the street was the park that Dad used to take me to and push me on the swings. He never pushed me for long, always insisting that I kick my legs once I started swinging, and yelling at me if I didn't maintain the momentum. I knew Dad probably wasn't at the park, but I didn't feel like buzzing Grandmother's apartment and then having to be alone with her and Mom.
The park's grass was brittle and brown, and under the swings the grass had been rubbed away by countless feet. I sat in the highest swing, the one on the end nearest a silver slide; the black half-moon seat of the swing cupped my lower butt, and I didn't feel balanced. I knew Dad would say that it was because my ass was too big, and that thought made my breathing heavier than did running down the stairs. The air was moist and cool and the sky gray and low. My hot breath came out and made wispy clouds in front of my face. I kicked my legs, thinking that would hold back the tears; I kicked harder and harder, going higher and higher, hearing the chains squeak and the bar above me creak, and all that only made the tears flow faster.
I would have continued swinging until the chains broke, but before I could do that cold sharp pellets of rain pierced me like mini arrowheads. I wiped my runny nose with the back of my hand, flung the snot on the brown ground, and made my way back across the street.
The park and the swings could be seen from Grandmother's balcony, and that was the reason, I figured, Mom hadn't come looking for me. If I had stayed out in the rain, I was certain Mom's voice would have called down to me, or with an umbrella shielding her, she would have retrieved me. To Grandmother, I was a future Master, worthy, no doubt, of saving; but to Mom, I was her only child.
The rain increased and I stood under the building's eave, water from it formed a fluid wall through which the parking lot was distorted, and I resolved not to buzz Grandmother's apartment. I would wait until someone went in or out and I'd slip in the door. My plan would have worked on a sunny day, but it had no chance on a cold rainy one, and I was close to giving in, tired of wiping snot on my hand and shirttail, when two images broke through the liquid wall.
"Is that how Cajun mothers teach their children to wipe their noses?" Aunt Minnie said. She wore a bright shiny red raincoat and had a matching umbrella over her head. Uncle Brent was behind her wearing a dark blue raincoat that didn't shine and he had a large bag in one hand and a large umbrella in the other hand. A pleasing smell of shrimp, sweet and sour sauces, and hot rice filled the area in front of the door.
"What are you doing out here?" Uncle Brent asked. He wore dark glasses with light blue lenses; they didn't hide his eyes, but the lenses were dark enough that I couldn't tell if his eye was bruised. I thought it strange that Aunt Minnie, my blood relative and a mother herself, did not ask after my welfare, but Uncle Brent, after having a fight with Dad the night before, showed concern.
"I was on the swings across the street. Then it started raining."
"Swinging, well, after that you must be hungry," Uncle Brent said, and smiled.
Aunt Minnie buzzed Grandmother's apartment. "We have Chinese food and Wesley Jr. with a running nose. We're bringing both up."
"In my day," Aunt Minnie said, as the elevator doors opened for Grandmother's floor, "children were respectful of their elders."
"In my day," I said, stepping out first, "I wish more elders deserved respect."
"You're father made over," Aunt Minnie said. "And you just wait until Mother hears what you've just said."
"Dad was right," I said, stepping aside so they could pass and be the first ones to Grandmother's door, "you are a tattler."
"You two break it up," Uncle Brent said. "It's bad enough you don't get along with your brother, but there's no reason to take it out on his son. Now knock on the door so they'll know we're here."
Grandmother opened the door and stood in the doorway.
"I apologize for my behavior last night," Uncle Brent said.
"I accept your apology and am certain it will never happen again. I see you found our wayward boy," Grandmother said, stepping aside as Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent led the way inside. Grandmother stopped me with her palm across my chest. "You know I am disappointed in your actions, Master Wesley. Like father, like son, is not always a positive proverb, and I am afraid you are taking on your father's worst ways." Her hand, as she spoke, was heavy against my chest; then she patted it lightly. "Now, is there anything you would like to tell me?"
"I couldn't catch Dad."
Her palm slapped my chest, forcing me back into the hall. The same palm clenched my shirt and yanked me back into the apartment. Our faces were only inches apart. "Your mouth and attitude had better change, Master Wesley. You may be the sole Royal heir, but that does not mean I have to leave you a dime or a drop of oil. Now go wash your crusty nose and hands. Then return and apologize to me and your mother."
Mom, busy helping Uncle Brent take the cartons of food out of the sack and placing them on the dining table, didn't look at me as I walked by. This hurt a little, but I kept telling myself that they—Mom and Grandmother—were in the wrong and I could tolerate whatever they threw at me. Apologize? Because I hadn't turned tail like an obedient puppy when they told me something? They should apologize to me for having a double-standard, letting Aunt Minnie talk however she wanted to Mom; and they should apologize to Dad for ganging up on him and treating him like he was a child and couldn't make a decision for his family.
I shut the bedroom door as well as the bathroom door, placing as many barriers as possible between them and me. I let the water run till steam rose from the faucet and clouded a small portion of the mirror while I decided if I was going to give them an apology. At that moment I felt like Dad, and I recalled a saying of his: "Never back down when you believe you're right. Make the other sonofabitch prove you wrong." But Mom and Grandmother already believed they had proved that they were right. Anger was good, it worked for Dad, but anger would only get me into more trouble. It was time for me to do something Dad couldn't: swallow my pride and play a diplomatic game.
The adults were seated around the dining table.
"Raynell, have you had Chinese food before?" Aunt Minnie asked.
"Several times. I especially like sweet and sour pork." Mom ceremoniously popped her napkin loose, placed it in her lap, and stared at Aunt Minnie.
There were two chairs still available, one next to Mom, one next to Uncle Brent. I chose the latter.
"Before you sit down, Master Wesley, is there not something you would like to say to me and your mother?"
"Yes, ma'am. There is." I remembered to enunciate and project from my diaphragm to illustrate my sincerity. "I am sorry for not listening to you both this morning." I looked Grandmother and then Mom in the eyes. "I should have stayed here instead of running outside."
"Why did you run outside?" Aunt Minnie asked.
"We accept his apology," Grandmother said. "There is no need to relive the vexing moment."
"But I would like to..." Aunt Minnie stopped herself.
"You may take your seat, Master Wesley."
From my seat, I saw out the balcony's sliding glass door that it still rained heavily. I worried that Dad was in this storm, cold and wet and getting angrier by the moment, making up his mind never to return. And I didn't want that. Although I had been ready to leave with Mom, I didn't want Dad doing the same to us. I felt hollow, short of breath and no appetite.
I stole peaks at Uncle Brent, who still had on his sunglasses.
"You want to see my eye?"
"Then why do you spend more time looking at my face than you do eating? Here, I'll show you all."
"Not while we're eating," Aunt Minnie said.
"It's not that bad."
"I would prefer you did not show it," Grandmother said. "But if you do, please be a gentleman and give me time to leave the table."
Uncle Brent, hands on the frames, did not remove the glasses. "I don't want to interfere with anyone's meal," he said, and resumed eating.
"Eat, Wesley," Mom said. "You like Chinese food. And you don't want to waste your aunt's money."
"Yes, ma'am." I stabbed a shrimp, popped it in my mouth, then mixed some rice in the sweet and sour sauce and spooned it up. The food should have tasted good; Aunt Minnie wouldn't go to a second-rate restaurant. But knowing that she bought it, I couldn't enjoy the food.
Sticking to my diplomatic guns, once brunch was over, I cleared the table and brought the garbage to the chute in the hall. Walking back to Grandmother's apartment, I passed the elevators; the numbers were ascending, and I watched to see what floor they stopped on. The numbers kept climbing, until there was a ding. I walked on. The doors opened and footsteps followed me, but I didn't look back. It was probably someone else's cantankerous grandparent. I opened Grandmother's door and glanced down the hall. Dad. He was soaked.
"I tried to catch you."
"Well you weren't fast enough," he said and pushed past me.
"I suppose this was why Wesley Jr. ran out this morning," Aunt Minnie. "Trying to catch his crazy daddy. You should have returned sooner, Royal. We had Chinese food, and it's low-fat, which you could use in your bloated condition."
"Go to Hell, Minnie." Dad looked to Uncle Brent. "Aren't you going to object to the way I'm talking to your darling wife?"
Uncle Brent began to speak, but was cut off by Aunt Minnie: "Don't antagonize Brent. He's more of a gentleman than you and refuses to fight at Mother's. He even apologized before setting foot through the door."
"You want me to walk out and apologize from the hall?"
"No, son. An apology from where you are standing will be fine. Then you can go dry yourself."
"I'm sorry, Mother. I had been drinking and I let my temper get the best of me."
"Thank you, son. I accept your apology. You may go dry off."
Was Dad's apology sincere? Or was he playing them, setting them up for some grand scheme he had concocted while he was out in the rain?
"Royal only gained weight because he stopped smoking," Mom said. "And he's given up coffee too. That's two vices he has kicked, which shows that he has more initiative than others."
"I'd appreciate it that when you're talking about me to me, you'd have the nerve to say my name," Aunt Minnie said.
"I was trying to save you some embarrassment. But in the future, I will heed your advice."
Grandmother, I was happy to see, didn't get involved in their discussion. She simply sat in her wingback chair with the shadows of stress and worry darkening her eyes.
In new clothes, his hair dry and combed, Dad came out of the bedroom and sat alone on the loveseat.
"So where'd you run off to?" Aunt Minnie asked.
"Went to talk to Father. See what he had to say about this crazy family he left on earth."
"What'd he say?" Aunt Minnie asked.
"Minnie! Do not be flippant when speaking of your father. It was good Royal went and saw his father's grave. When was the last time you went, Minnie?"
"Brent and I went..." her voice trailed off.
"You cannot even remember," Grandmother said. "How pitiful."
"Dad, could you take me to see Grandfather's grave before we leave?"
I had hoped for a longer response, maybe even have it develop into a dialogue, but Dad didn't seem as if he was up to talking. The past two days' bouts of verbal jabbing had worn him out. Mom didn't join Dad on the loveseat but sat in one of the swivel chairs. It was, however, the swivel chair closest to Dad; a small, promising gesture.
"Raynell, could I ask a favor of you?"
"Of course, Mother Royal."
"My Bible study group will meet here tomorrow and I was wondering, since you are such an outstanding cook, would you be willing to whip up one of your delectable Cajun dishes?"
"What would you like?"
"Something simple. I do not want to put you through too much trouble."
"It's no trouble, as long as I can get the ingredients."
"The Albertson's has a gourmet aisle."
"She needs the ethnic aisle, Mother," Aunt Minnie said. "Where the illegal Mexicans shop."
"Minnie, I have had enough of you putting Raynell down. She is a member of this family and I will not tolerate you insulting her cultural heritage. Are we clear?"
Aunt Minnie didn't say another word, until that afternoon, when she said good-bye as she and Uncle Brent left to enjoy the cocktail hour under the guise of visiting another college friend.
The weather broke after they left, almost as a sign that a weight had been lifted from our presence. Mom decided to make a catfish coubillion, fillets in spicy tomato gravy, and she gave Dad her shopping list: ten pounds of catfish fillets, two white onions, a bag of green onions, four cloves of garlic, and six cans of tomato sauce. Dad and I went to fill the shopping list, and on our way to the grocery store we went to Grandfather's grave.
"I'm proud you want to see your grandfather's grave. It's a pity he didn't live to see you born. You favor him, you know."
"Everyone says I look like you."
"Who the hell do you think I look like?" Dad grinned. "You've got his eyes; deep-set and serious. Use those eyes like he did to scare the hell out of people. Your grandfather wasn't big like you, but everyone who dealt with him knew not to cross him. And if they did, he got the best of them."
The cemetery was on the edge of town. We drove between two brick columns and under a wrought-iron arch.
"How'd you get this far walking?" I asked.
"I hailed a cab when it started raining."
"But you were wet when you got back to Grandmother's."
"I had the cab drop me off on the other side of the park and I walked to her building. Wanted Mother to think I'd walked the whole way. Always keep others guessing, son."
Mom seemed to be right about Dad playing people, and I had less faith in his reasons for wanting to join the Mormon Church. But even with eroding faith, I wanted to believe Dad was noble in his reasons. I wanted him to be the savior of the family, and most of all I wanted the Mormon Church to turn Dad into that savior. I wanted him to be a good Mormon man who didn't curse or hit his family. Mom did not want to join the Mormon Church, but if we were to stay with Dad, I didn't see any other choice.
Dad eased the station wagon through the narrow paved lanes of the cemetery and stopped, I thought, rather randomly. This could not be the gravesite I had seen as a younger child. There was a large, jagged, diagonal crack down the front of the crypt and weeds, brown and shining in the aftermath of the rain, sprung up around the base. What had happened? If my memory of Grandfather's tomb could be misleading, what about the memory of the man? Was he really as great as everyone said? Or had the decades since his death clouded their memories, embellished their stories, made him seem grand, like I had remembered his gravesite?
"They let the cemetery go down in the winter," Dad said as we walked up to the tomb. "They don't think anyone'll come out in the cold to look at dead folks. I didn't want to say anything about it to Mother after she'd jumped on Minnie about not coming to see the site, because the shape it's in proves that Mother hasn't been out here in quite awhile either."
"Do you think Grandfather would approve of us joining the Mormon Church?"
"Father wouldn't care. The almighty dollar was his deity." Dad's face assumed a bemused look. "Mother, after she had Minnie, wouldn't let Father touch her anymore." Dad's voice carried too loudly for a cemetery. "But they still stayed together. Father, he had his women on the side, but he never flaunted them in front of Mother. He told her: 'Look, gal, I'm a man, and a man's got needs, and if you don't want to fulfill them, I'll find someone who will.' Still the same, he remained our father and took care of Mother and us; he made sure none of us wanted for a thing. Now, your mama, she still lets me touch her, and if my parents could survive without romance, your mama and me sure as hell can survive with a touch of it left in us." Dad's voice dropped. "At least that's one thing we've got going for us."
"You've got more than just that. You just have to calm down, control your temper."
"That's been my problem all my life, son. My temper, my lack of patience as your mama says. The same problems my father had. Like father, like son."
"Grandmother told me that's not always a good saying. She said I have some of your bad ways, too."
"With Royal men, you got to take the good with the bad."
"But what if the bad is too much for others to stand?"
"Then you have to find people who can stand it."
"What if you drive away the people around you?"
"Am I driving you and your mama away?"
"You're not making it easy for us to stay."
"I'm too old to change, son. This is the way I am."
"If you're too old to change, then why do you want to join the Mormon Church? You quit smoking and drinking coffee. That's changing."
The corners of Dad's mouth turned up slightly and a faint smile blossomed on his face. "You're goddamn right, son."
In the kitchen, I stood by Mom, watching her chop, slice, stir, and place the milky-white fillets in the bright red sauce. Any time Mom cooked, I tried to be near her, for she was in her element, knife in hand, wet chopping block, fires singing under pots, and scrumptious smells enveloping all in her presence.
Grandmother came into the kitchen and made me help her set the table with her best china that was bought in Germany, her best crystal that was bought in Austria, her best linen napkins that were bought in England, and her best silver that was bought in America at Nieman-Marcus but manufactured in England. The only things American at this lunch would be the diners. I was nervous helping Grandmother, who all morning had paced around the apartment from kitchen to living room to balcony to her bedroom to bathroom and back to the kitchen beginning the circuit anew. She was anxious about having her friends and fellow old lady Bible studying Baptists meet her son.
The doorbell rang and when Grandmother opened the door, six elderly women, widows of West Texas oilmen, stood huddled together. After greetings and helloes, Grandmother Royal said: "This is my grandson, Master Wesley Royal, Jr." All the women oohed and ahhed and said what a fine looking young man I was. I burned with pride and revulsion, wanting to believe these remarks but at the same time knowing they were said for Grandmother's sake.
As the elderly women made their way deeper into the apartment, still moving as one large organism with six distinct heads and twelve feet and hands, Grandmother introduced my parents, and Mom was singled out as the one responsible for the mouthwatering aroma.
The women finally separated and took seats around the living room, but no one moved toward Grandmother's wingback chair. All of them were dressed up, but had varying degrees of jeweled ostentation, and hairspray starched their manes into gravity defying positions. A heavy-set lady, the only plump one in the bunch who sat in a swivel chair, had her hair colored raven, and her eyebrows too. This contrasted with her pallor, powdered skin, making her appear as a chunky corpse.
Although Grandmother had said all of the women's names during the introductions, I only knew one name: Miss Pete, Grandmother's best friend. Miss Pete, I had found out on an earlier visit to Grandmother's, received her name because her father wanted a boy to bear his name. When a daughter, his only child, blessed or cursed his life, depending on how he perceived the situation, he clung to the idea of naming the child after him. But the name fit her and didn't seem overly masculine. Miss Pete was not a big woman. She was of average height but had small, bird-like features: deep-set owl-eyes, a hawk-like nose with a slight drop to the tip, and a high-canary voice. She carried herself more like Grandmother than the rest of the women, and confirming that she was indeed Grandmother's closest friend, she sat nearest to the wingback chair.
I stood on the edge of the crowd, my toes touching but not on the Oriental rug, taking in the sight. More wealth than I had ever seen and more than five hundred years of living sat in front of me. Looking at the old women was like being simultaneously at a vault and a museum. Mom and Dad occupied the loveseat, and Dad had his arm resting behind Mom but not around her.
The small talk faded from the air and Grandmother filled the silence: "We're just waiting on my daughter Minnie and her husband. Once they arrive we can eat."
"There's no telling when they'll roll out of bed," Dad said.
"Oh, they will be here shortly, son. I am sure."
While he made a dig at Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent, at least Dad didn't curse.
"Why are you here now when Thanksgiving is next week?" asked the plump woman with the dark hair.
Grandmother's and Dad's faces slacked. Obviously Grandmother hadn't told her Bible study group that her son and his family were contemplating converting to the Mormon Church.
"We're going to see my family in Louisiana for Thanksgiving," Mom said. "So we decided we'd come and see Mother Royal the week before and stop and visit my family on the drive home to Florida."
Dad smiled and wrapped his arm around Mom; she snuggled closer to him.
All the old women nodded and Miss Pete commented on the practicality of the itinerary. It was a good sign that Mom lied for Grandmother and Dad.
"What about your daughter and her husband," the plump woman said, "are they going to be here for Thanksgiving?"
"They're going to France," Grandmother said.
"So you'll be alone for Thanksgiving," the plump woman said.
"She will have dinner with me," Miss Pete said.
"But you're not family," the plump woman countered.
"I view Miss Pete as my sister," Grandmother said. "The sister I never had." Miss Pete and she clasped hands. "Although my children will not be here on Thanksgiving, I have them all together this week, which is better than only having them for one day next week."
The truth was: we had never been to Grandmother's for Thanksgiving, and only once, when I was a baby, did we come for Christmas.
Mom excused herself and said she had to check on her coubillion and Grandmother joined her in the kitchen, leaving Dad with the old women to field the inevitable question: what is a coubillion? Dad, without uttering a curse word, explained that it was soup, thicker than tomato soup but with a similar base, along with garlic, onions, and catfish fillets. At his description, the old women nodded and voiced their excitement, and I thought a drop of drool dripped from the corner of the plump woman's mouth.
The old women left Dad alone and conversed among themselves, so I, seeing that Dad was left out of their conversations had little chance to offend them, went to the kitchen to see if I could steal a bite.
"Hey, Mother," Dad said in a voice that halted all other conversations. "When are we going to eat? There's no telling when Minnie and Brent will get here. That may have had to stop and visit another old college friend."
Grandmother rolled her eyes at Raynell and shuttered an instant before emerging from the kitchen. "Son, the rice is not cooked all the way through. We will have to wait a few more minutes on it, whether Minnie and Brent are here or not."
"So you're saying when the rice is done, we can eat, whether they're here or not?"
"I would prefer to wait on them. After all, they were invited too, and it would be rude to begin without them."
"It's rude of them not to arrive on time. Minnie just does that so she can make a grand entrance. I think it would teach her a lesson if we began without them. What do you think Miss Pete?"
"Son, please. Do not drag Miss Pete into a family discussion."
"But you just said Miss Pete was your sister, which makes her family."
"Son . . . "
"Oh, Miss Pete, Mother, I'm just yanking your chain. I wouldn't think of eating until Minnie and Brent get here."
"Son, you can be such a kidder."
On cue, the other women tittered at the mother-son exchange.
The cuckoo clock clicked away a half hour and finally Grandmother told everyone to take a seat at the table: we would eat without Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent. The round glass table where we had been having our meals was too small for that day's crowd, so we used Grandmother's wooden table, rectangular and made of cherry, which glistened under her small chandelier. This table was normally covered by porcelain bird figurines: blue jays, robins, and orioles, but I had placed those in Grandmother's bedroom, under her guidance, earlier that morning. The two extra seats reserved for Aunt Minnie and Uncle Brent were removed and everyone was seated around the table except Mom and I; we were still in the kitchen, where I held a large tureen while Mom spooned in the coubillion.
Before we finished our work in the kitchen, the doorbell rang. Grandmother answered the door; Aunt Minnie was red faced and smiled uncontrollably as she traipsed through the kitchen.
"You're lucky you're here, we were about to eat without you," Dad announced from the table.
"Mother knew I was coming," Aunt Minnie's voice was loud and she smelled of lilac perfume.
"Then why isn't there a chair at the table for you?"
"I told you we were eating at noon and it is five minutes to one o'clock. What do you expect?"
"Royal, be a good brother and bring me a chair to the table."
"I will if you tell me where Brent is."
"He is not feeling well and stayed at the hotel."
"That old college friend give him a bug?"
"Please, son, get Minnie a chair."
I heard the rustling and moving of old bodies around the table as Aunt Minnie settled herself.
Grandmother led us out of the kitchen. Dad stood as we approached and helped me set the steaming bowl in the center of the table. All the old women cackled in excitement.
Mom took the seat next to Dad, who remained standing. "This food, if you don't mind me saying, is going to be delicious because my wife made it." The old women sighed in unison and gave a small applause. Dad took his seat and planted a light peck on Mom's cheek. She blushed deeply.
Grandmother sat at the head of the table and said grace. Dad sat to her left and me to her right. Aunt Minnie, due to her late arrival, sat at the far end of the table; the more distance between her and Dad the better. The plump woman with all the annoying questions was sat next to Aunt Minnie and I didn't think that boded well for anyone. Their mouths in concert could ruin the meal. But luckily the plump woman, once eating began, spooned in bite after bite, and didn't even put the spoon down to wipe her chin.
Lunch was going well, and Grandmother seemed pleased. I looked up from my dish to see her smiling, casting an approving look around the table at her family and friends. She winked at me. Miss Pete sat next to me and despite her man's name she ate like the dainty woman she was, and she was quick to compliment Mom's cooking and the other women chimed in as well. Then everyone returned to eating, except Aunt Minnie.
"Mother, have you talked Royal out of converting to the Mormon Church?"
The old women dropped their spoons. Grandmother's smile turned south, and she said, "What are you talking about?"
"Mother, please. You sent for Royal and his family after Raynell informed you that he was making them join the Mormon Church. You sent them plane tickets, which they didn't use. I'd say Royal cashed them in, and then you had to pay him a week's earning to get him to agree to come."
"It is not polite to tell family business in front of guests," Grandmother said.
"I thought you'd invited them over as reinforcements to ensure that Royal remains a Baptist."
"Is this true?" asked the plump lady, a drop of red gravy dangling from her chin.
"You're damn right it's true. My family and I are joining the Mormon Church."
"I haven't agreed to that yet," Mom said.
"Given time, you will."
"Are the Mormons even Christian?" Miss Pete asked.
"Hell, yes. More Christian than the Baptists."
The women collectively sighed.
"The Mormons," the heavily jeweled woman began, "have more than one wife."
"They used to, but not anymore."
"But having multiple wives is wrong," said the plump woman.
"If it's wrong," Dad said, "then why did Solomon have more than one wife? Are you saying he was wrong?"
"That was back in the past," the lady with walker said. She held her weak hand up and it shook as she continued: "And the Mormons do not read the Bible. They have their own book."
"The Book of Mormon is what it's called. And they do too read the Bible. They use both. I bet y'all don't even know what the Book of Mormon contains."
"Lies and untruths and abominations before the Lord," said the woman with a cane.
"Since you all know the Bible so well," Dad said, "do you know the passage John 10:16: 'I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.' Do you know who Jesus was referring to?"
"The future generations."
"Those who had yet to accept the Lord and His religion."
All the women nodded in agreement, knowing their answers to be true.
"What about the people in the New World?" Dad said. "Couldn't Jesus have been referring to them."
"Jesus never preached in the New World," the plump woman said.
"That's what you think because you've never read the Book of Mormon."
"Is that what their book speaks of, Christ in America?" asked Miss Pete.
"Part of it does," Dad said. "The Mormons believe that when Christ was crucified and died, during His burial He came to the New World for two days and taught the people here."
"The Indians?" the woman with the walker asked.
"They were the descendants of Jews who had fled Israel six-hundred years before Christ was born," Dad said.
"I don't believe it."
"You don't have to," Dad said. "I'm not trying to convert you. And I'm not sure I believe all of this..."
"Then why do you want to join their church?" Grandmother asked.
"Theology aside, the Mormons are true Christians; they live the precepts that others, especially the Baptists, only talk about. The Mormons have a lay ministry. No preacher sits on his ass and takes your hard earned money. Most importantly," Dad looked to Mom, "the family is the center of the Mormon Church. That, above all else, is why we are converting."
"Raynell, however," Grandmother said, "will not convert."
All eyes focused on Mom.
"I was against the idea, and I'm still not totally for it. But meeting the Elders and seeing what kind of people they are, they're no different than us. In some ways, they may be better than us."
"How can you say that, Raynell? You're a good Baptist woman," Grandmother said.
"Mother Royal, you are too. Yet you are browbeating your son because he wants to change churches; a change, he believes, for the betterment of his family. What is wrong with that?"
"I would never have thought you, Raynell, would speak to me in such a way, especially under my roof."
"I'm sorry, Mother Royal, if I hurt you. But you shouldn't attack your son simply because he is doing something you don't agree with."
"But you do not agree with it either," Grandmother said.
"I'm still not in total agreement. But I'm starting to have a better understanding of Royal's reasons."
The old women, their bellies half full and their sensibilities totally shattered, left shortly after the family debacle.
"You drunk hussy. You arrive late to my house and then you have the gall to embarrass me in front of my closest friends. Why, Minnie?"
"You can't hide imperfections, Mother. And God knows this family has many."
"That is true. Beginning with your drinking, which I have hid from people, including myself, all my life."
We still sat at the dining table. A smile spread across Dad's face as he savored Grandmother's chastising of Aunt Minnie.
"What about Royal's numerous marriages?" Aunt Minnie said. "Have you kept those a secret too? The only reason he's still with Raynell is because she, unlike the other four, gave him a child that is undoubtedly his."
"Don't bring me and my family into this discussion just because you're getting your ass chewed out," Dad said.
"Son, this is the last time I will tell you: stop cursing as long as you are under my roof."
"Would you prefer I left and cursed all I wanted in town and then returned, just like Minnie does her drinking?"
"No. What would be acceptable is for you to stop swearing all together." Grandmother stood, cleared her throat, and clapped her hands calling all to attention: "I am ashamed at what occurred here. My children acted like common wretches, showing no respect or restraint. Minnie, you kicked it all off with your tight tongue, and Royal, you played right into her hands, giving your spiel on Mormon teachings. Raynell, I am disappointed in you as well. You thumbed your nose at me, and after all the love I have showed you. I expect full apologies from the three of you." Grandmother went to her wingback chair and placed herself in it stately and erect.
"I'm not apologizing because I didn't do anything wrong. I was put on the spot by Minnie and then grilled by your friends. Hell...Shoot, I simply defended myself and my stance to them. Nothing more. Now Minnie, she opened her big mouth and set all this in motion. On purpose I would say, like the spoiled little girl she's always been."
"Yes, spoiled. You never had to work for anything or go without."
"I didn't see you going without, brother."
"And I didn't see you working alongside me during the summers."
"The oil field is no place for a woman," Aunt Minnie said.
"But you spent all your time at home and you still can't cook or clean. What can you do other than order servants and highballs?"
"I raised Minnie to be a lady, the wife of a gentleman," Grandmother said. "I taught her to entertain, to plan dinner parties, to make small talk. It is my fault she does not have any applicable skills."
"There you go, just like when we're children, taking up for her. Nothing's ever her fault. It's always someone else's. Well, Minnie is grown and it's about time she starts taking responsibility when she does something wrong."
"That is exactly why I demanded she apologize," Grandmother said.
"Well, I don't hear her."
Grandmother nodded to Aunt Minnie, who walked from behind the dining table. "Mother, I have to be going. Brent and I have to get ready for our trip."
"You will not leave here without first apologizing," Grandmother said.
"I'm not a little girl."
"But you are still my daughter."
"And as your daughter, I refuse to apologize. Everyone is always bowing under your authority, and you think everything can be made better by some simple words. Well, they can't, Mother."
"You ungrateful witch," Grandmother said.
"Are those going to be your last words to Minnie, Mother?"
"Be quiet, son, I will deal with you after I have taught your sister some respect."
"You call it respect, Mother, but you want to be feared."
"If you walk out that door without apologizing, you will not be allowed re-entry," Grandmother said, walking after her.
Standing in the doorway, Aunt Minnie said, "Happy Thanksgiving, Mother."
Grandmother stood in front of her, mouth agape. No more threats, no more demands emanated from her.
"Minnie," Mom called over Grandmother's shoulder.
"Yes, dear," Aunt Minnie said and smiled.
"Don't forget to practice your French."
Minnie snorted like a bull and stomped off.
In the momentary silence, I thought I heard Grandmother chuckle, but when she turned around and walked back to the living room, her face was stern.
"So you are going to convert to Mormonism. Is that it, son. Nothing else I can say?"
"There was never anything you could have said, Mother. The only person who can stop me from joining the Mormon Church is Raynell." Mom walked behind him and put her hands on his shoulders. Dad clasped her hands and stroked them. "There's nothing more for us to say, we should get going."
"No. I paid you for a week, and I want you stay a week."
Dad reached into his wallet and handed his mother her check. "We're free to go."
Hardy Jones has published thirty pieces of creative nonfiction and short fiction in journals, and he has been awarded two grants. His novel Every Bitter Thing was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2010. His story "Snow" appeared in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, and his story "Bunk Beds But No Chairs" was in The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal in 2013. His stories "A New Bike for Little Mike" and "Visitin' Cormierville" are forthcoming in the Southern Gothic e-anthology from New Lit Salon Press. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil (www.cybersoleiljournal.com).His memoir People of the Good God is forthcoming from Mongrel Empire Press. He is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Creative Writing at Cameron University. His website is www.hardyjoneswriting.com. "Family of Saints" is an excerpt from his novel manuscript Calming the Fire.