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Robert Kevin Walters 

Boss: Notes from Mississippi

 

He gnaws a chicken leg down to its wet gristle while crumbs fall, collecting on the ledge of his stomach jammed against the table.  

"Dad," I say. "Youíre spilling it all over yourself."  

But Dad doesnít look up, doesnít mind me at all. The four of us are late for a meeting, and he has to finish lunch Ė or else heíll be grumpy later. Dad, his two handymen Thomas, Dennis, and I are going to look into buying an abandoned house.  

Dad will do the looking and the buying. Thomas and Dennis will do the fixing. Iím there to watch and learn. 

Dad eats way too fast, and he eats way too much. He eats like itís still 1952, and heís Bobby "Bear" Walters, the boy who broke both his arms on the last day of school and spent all summer in casts up to his elbows. The prankster who turned back the odometer on his fatherís Chevrolet because heíd driven it further than heíd been permitted to and his old man kept up with how many miles the car had on it, and dad didnít want to get the belt.  

Dad is the grown-up tubby kid of the past, the kid humiliated by a gym coach, a grizzled World War II vet (yet another sadist from The Greatest Generation), who chased him around the gymnasium with a folding chair, excoriating him as he trudged along dead last behind the other boys.  

"Címon fat Bobby, run! Run! You want a seat? You want to sit down? You want a chair?" He pronounced the word as cheer. 

My father survived gym class and then, later, Korea and Vietnam. I only hope it isnít a three-piece order of Popeyeís spicy fried chicken with biscuits that does him in.

Dadís eating like a madman, and Thomas and Dennis barely look up from their plates.  Sunlight fills the double-paned restaurant picture windows, warms the tabletops, the tile floor while the checkout girls jape and jaw at each other, laughing, gorgeous in their slick curlicue hairdos, air-brushed talon nails and gold-capped teeth. Grilles, theyíre called. Itís slow, seedy, and here we all are, just folks eating, waiting to go home and fall asleep in front of our TVs. 

Dadís lunch falls faster now as we get closer and closer to being late. Watching him eat, it isnít too hard to make a leap forward in time. What happens when he canít piss by himself? What happens when he canít wipe his own ass? I know what will happen. I eat to take my mind off it, dropping my own bones in the paper food boat, a chicken skeleton crew. 

"Dad. Your chicken. Youíre a mess," I try again.  

"Yeah, my chicken. I know," he says, gnawing on.  

"Youíve got food all over your shirt," I protest. 

"This?" he says, picking the food from his shirt, fat wristwatch flashing. "How about I take my shirt and boil it up for soup for us later? How about that?" 

Dad laughs. Thomas and Dennis keep their heads down, scooping their beans and rice with plastic spoons, looking up to meet each otherís eyes every so often. Crazy white people.

"You know Iím going to open a company," Dad says to Thomas. "You know what weíre going to call it? ĎTwo Brothers and A White Guy.í Ainít that right Dennis?" 

Dennis makes a guttural sound, eating. 

"Hmm. Thatís right, boss," Dennis says, stirring his red beans. Dennis smiles a small smile when he calls Dad "boss." Heís serious but not real serious either. Itís a term of affection and derision, all at once. It fits the whole relationship they have.  

Boss. Dad bristles when I tease him about his plantation title. He doesnít like it when Dennis calls him that. He doesnít like how it recalls earlier, nastier times in Mississippi.  

"Me and you ainít never going to know what itís like to be black," Dad told me once, like I thought I did. "To have to go through all theyíve been through. Ever." 

Dennis is shorter and wirier than Thomas and is able to get into the attics and crawlspaces easier Ė but heís less dependable. He smokes crack every so often Ė though heís better about it than he used to be.  

Dennisí bottom came last year when he bought crack with the money his girlfriend had been saving for a glass eye. She eventually bought a new eye but, in the intervening months, she went without a patch to get back at him.  

"Lord, thatís an ugly woman," Dad had said. "But when she puts her eye in, she donít look that bad."

"Dennis," Dad says today, on a roll. "Are you an African American?" 

"Nope." 

Thomas wheezes out a laugh, wipes his mouth with his paper napkin. He shakes his head at whatís coming next. Heís heard this before: this call-and-answer between Dad and Dennis. 

"I ainít never been to Africa, I donít know any Africans," Dennis said. "Iím a poor black man from Mississippi. And there ainít nothing worse." 

We finish our meals and pile into Dadís Navigator.  

High up off the ground, shielded by thick tinted glass, the four of us roll down Broadway Drive, a stretch of cheerless car lots and abandoned buildings. Even the billboards are empty down here, except for the pious ones paid for by a religious group urging Mississippi teens to abstain, abstain.  

"OK, Thomas, look, now letís talk about what weíre going to do," Dad says. 

"OK, boss," Thomas says. 

Weíre going to walk through a house thatís been repossessed by the insurance company. Dad wants to inspect it and maybe make an offer. It might be a good deal Ėdepending on how cutthroat the Realtor wants to be. 

Dad doesnít own stocks or insurance. He says thatís for rich people. Itís property, specifically the little two and three bedroom post-and-beam places built in the 40s and 50s that are his stock in trade.

Land, heís said, is the only thing no oneís making any more of. 

"Now, Thomas, listen. When we get to this place, I want you to let loose. Bad mouth everything you see. I mean really talk it down. OK?" 

Thomas leans forward, attentive. He fills the Navigator with the scent of sawdust and nicotine. Heís muscular from hours spent with shovels, pieces of Sheetrock, a hoe, and a crowbar. He works to support himself and his ex-wife and their kids, none of whom live with him any more. He also has a son whoís in jail.  

"Talk it down how?" Thomas says. 

"I mean," Dad says, talking with both hands and steering with his knees. "Just talk it down! Way down, OK? Talk about how bad the roof is or how bad the electrical is or how bad the floor is sinking. Rip on it to death."  

"Yeah. OK. I got you." 

"See, I gotta get the price down on this thing so I need you to help me poor mouth it. You think you can do that?" 

Thomas nods, all business. Having a new house to work on means the potential for more employment. Dad is as dependent on Thomas to come through as much as Thomas is dependent on Dad. Thereís affection there, in some ways theyíre closer than my dad and I are, but it all hinges on business, too. 

We jounce over the tar strips of Broadway for a moment before Dennis pipes up. 

"Hey Boss," Dennis says. "How you want me to be?" 

Dad frowns a moment, thinking.  

"Silent!" he booms, eyes flashing with panic, terrified of Dennis souring the whole deal. 

The house, a sprawling one-story dump painted seasick gray, doesnít need Thomasí help to make it unappetizing. Itís dark and musty, stinking of water damage and mice droppings.  

The Realtor is already there. Heís got the ash-white hair and pre-processed, dull humor of a politician. In creased jeans, his cell phone mounted like a tape measure on his belt, he meets us in the kitchen, hand outstretched. He stands in front of a kitchen card table and three folding chairs, dusty but usable.  

He goes into the story of the house: It was owned by a Korean family who had a Chinese restaurant in town and then headed back to Seoul.  

We begin our sweep through the house.  

A bedroom, devoid of clothes or people with sad posters still clinging to its walls and a bed frame alone in the corner. A pantry spills forth cans of dust-covered food. Dennis palms a can of tomato paste but then reconsiders, tossing it back. The sideboards are still stocked with silverware, delicate white cups and bowls covered with a thick, sticky patina of dust.  

Then thereís the fireplace. Where the cinders or plastic logs should be sit sixteen bottles of Heinz ketchup, never opened.  

Outsideís no improvement. Weeds choke the front yard and the back is overrun with vines and witchweed. Itís primordial back there, except for a basketball hoop that sags over a macadam turnaround drive. 

"Hey man," Thomas says to Dennis, beaming. "Look at them weeds. Thatís about three monthsí right there." 

Dennis laughs, a sound like someone rubbing a coarse cloth over brick. "Oh yeah. Job security!" 

Dad and the Realtor start to haggle Ė he wants $48,000 for the house, but Dad wonít budge an inch over $32,000. I ought to be listening, trying to get a firmer grasp on the principles of real estate such as escrow and refinancing and blah blah blah. Itís not my world, all this talk of houses and so forth. Oh, but run as I might, one day it will be. Iím putting it off until then. I donít want to be boss.

So I try to listen for awhile but instead, I go see what else is in the kitchen.

I open a rattling drawer. Inside is a silk-brocaded book. Its pages are a stiff bond of paper, cool to the touch from months of being tucked away. Each page is lined from top to bottom with the most delicate, lovely handwriting I have ever seen. The only problem is that the writing is in Korean. I flip through it, enamored. Instead of writing it looks like the intricate pattern youíd find adorning a wall or inlaid on the gilt frame of a painting.  

Iím about to put it back when I turn to the only entry written in English: 

PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH
1 tablespoon of peanut butter
1 piece of bread
Spread peanut butter on bread. Repeat with more bread.

This charms me so much, this strangerís note passing through my hands onto the next person. I want to steal it, claim it as a little artifact to show to my friends, but I donít. I return it to its old drawer and hope that someone else gets their turn with it like me.

Dad and the Realtor agree to disagree about the price. They shake hands; Realtor, Dad, Thomas, Dennis and I are all smiles. Dad cracks the joke he uses whenever he leaves someplace: "Glad you got to see me. Sorry you canít say the same." 

We pile into the Navigator and close the doors.

Everyoneís silent for a long second, the smell of the old house mingling with the aroma of the fried chicken still hanging to all our clothes. Keeping his eye on the Realtor, Dad backs down the driveway and says what weíre all thinking: "What a piece of shit! He wants $48,000 ó for that thing? Heís out of his cotton-picking mind!"


Robert Kevin Walters is a journalist living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Brooklyn Free Press, The Georgetown Review, openletters.net, SunDog, and McSweeneyís. He is at work on a novel.

 

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