On the outside I’m smilin’ but on the inside I’m cryin’ Christmas tears.

Some fiction I was playing with…

“Damn those worthless carpenters,” Jamie mumbled.

Down on his belly, he banged the tattered, antique Electrolux’s wand around in the warm air register, reaching deep into the bowels of the house. Wood shavings clung to his arm as he attempted to clean up the builder’s residue that had found its way into the duct work during the renovation. This house had been his grandparents’ first real home, a medium-sized Georgian red-brick situated on a one-acre lot, built in 1929. He had renovated it on the weekends with the help of his wife and was applying the finishing touches a few weeks before Christmas.

He shoved the wand deeper — he always vacuumed with a single-mindedness that rivaled his deepest levels of concentration when he was programming. The suction stopped dead and the old vacuum’s motor strained and whined at a higher pitch as it attempted to suck up something it wasn’t meant to suck. Withdrawing the wand from within the floor, he found an old Christmas ball stuck on the end. How it had got into the register puzzled him but here it was. It was of a deep rich cobalt blue, a color no longer used at Christmas time but one that had been popular many years ago. In fact, Jamie remembered this ball, or at least the set of them that had long since become dust. He, as a child, had hung this very ball on many an ugly cedar tree. He carefully laid the wand on the hardwood floor so as to not break the ball and switched off the power. Rolling over on his back, he picked up the ball and stared into its deep blue to see a tiny image of himself; memories flooded his mind, memories of his childhood living in the house that his grandparents had owned…

Memories in a trance. There was a dark room, very cold. Three windows, side by side, were framed with snow. Deep snow covered the ground outside, and the sky was gloomy. The windows were double hung type with old thick, wavy, greenish glass; one large, as big as a picture window, flanked by two skinny windows a third as wide as the picture window. White metal Venetian blinds hung on all three, and were open with the large middle window’s blinds pulled up half way to allow the dreary day in. One side of the blinds drooped an inch having not been pulled up very carefully. Drapes of a natural coarse cotton, trimmed with dull red fringe, separated the windows from the bare green walls, a color green that would be considered very stylish. By the window sat an old woman bundled against the cold holding her infant grandson wrapped in a baby blue blanket as she surveyed the snow. Her bad leg was propped up straight as a broom stick on a chair identical to the one she sat in, two of a set of eight. Most of the oak floor was covered by a dark green rug that complimented the color of the wall. In the center of the ceiling hung a darkened crystal chandelier with five frosted glass globes dressed in skirts of crystal prisms, which, on brighter days, scattered the colors hidden in the morning sunlight over the room causing the children to catch the light in their palms and then try and follow the beam of colors back to its source. It hung over a big cherry drop leaf table, and on those mornings, as likely as not, a child would be standing in the middle of the table, oblivious to all the world, staring trance-like through one of the skirts. Opposite the window on the other side of the table was a matching cherry Jackson press filled with the grandmother’s treasure, her china and crystal. On top of the press was a big oblong, somewhat rectangular soup tureen, white with various water scenes from all over the world drawn upon it in a dark sepia porcelain ink. There were scenes of flatboats carrying goods down river, fishing boats off the coast, sailing ships in bays, surf crashing on rocks, rafts taking on rapids, and the like.

The old woman sat in one of her cherry dining room chairs to the left of the window, her forearm resting on the green painted sill with her bad leg stretched out in front of her. She was looking out the window off to the right, at nothing in particular. This was the earliest memory of life that the child she held had, if indeed it was a memory and not some dream or imagination. The child thought it was real, since his mother and grandmother both verify what he remembered. They think it was the winter of 1952‑53, which was particularly harsh for Nashville. It had snowed deeply that year, and ice storms had downed power lines cutting off heat and power to the house and most of the others in town as well as a large part on the Central South. It was a hard year for the child’s family. That was around the time that his father had left his mother, and to this day he has many visions from that time.

Playing on summer days in the creek in the back of the child’s grandparents’ house, he thought of it as a magical place that he would spend all available time in even when, during rainless summers, it dried up exposing the bare-bone bedrock of the earth. He could look down Belle Meade Branch and see that it emptied into Richland Creek proper that emptied into the Cumberland River that emptied into the Tennessee that emptied into the Mississippi that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the silt and runoff of twenty‑eight states and parts of Canada along with his imagination. The water that he played in was only a few inches deep, but it was indeed a remote tendril of a beast that reached ‘round the world. When he touched that water he knew he touched the shores of the earth and all its continents.

Birds were always there — robins, blue jays, cardinals, boat‑tailed grackles, green herons, kingfishers, screech owls, pileated woodpeckers, sparrows, starlings, barn swallows, chimney swifts, mourning doves, mockingbirds, warblers, wrens, Carolina chickadees, towhees — along with all the other animals that loll about creeks. Squirrels and chipmunks raced through the trees as bats tried to get some rest, and muskrat broke the surface of the water. Box turtles could be found grazing along the banks while snapping turtles pretended to be rocks on the bottom. Perch, minnows, crayfish, leeches, water spiders, mud daubers, red wasps, bull frogs, leopard frogs, snakes, toads, turtles, muskrat, birds, and the boy all relied on that creek for nourishment — theirs, physical; the boy’s, emotional, spiritual…, and physical. Over his mother’s objections, he would drink cups and cups of water from that creek as if it were the sacred Ganges and he a devout Hindu, oblivious to the fact that it collected quite a bit of sewage up stream. Typhoid attacked his mother once with a fever that made all her hair fall out. It grew back fortunately, and she would tell him about this whenever she saw him drinking from the creek, that she had gotten it from swimming in a polluted creek; but he kept on drinking, and she never caught him much. Typhoid shots probably saved his life and most certainly his hair.

At age six he built an airplane out of breeko blocks, eight foot long two by tens, and sixty‑penny framing nails. The wood acted as fuselage and wings, the breekos as landing gear. He constructed the plane with a blacksmith’s sledge, and he became upset that it wouldn’t fly. When not attempting to take off in the airplane, he would play in the warm sand box made of dark green painted lumber and would find cat droppings neatly buried in it. His sister, chubby and always playing with dolls in her bright first floor bedroom, would sit on him whenever he bothered her. His grandfather, forever sleeping, evidently practicing up for the grave, snored violently. He would often remember that he would sit on the side porch next to his grandmother as she sewed, and her sticking her finger with a needle. To save her the trouble, he invoked God to damn that needle to hell just as she did so many times. A hard slap across the face taught him the proper age at which one can safely use curse words — around eighty. He remembered his father only in his dreams.

But he was haunted by that cold dining room scene, feeling a sadness in the memory of that day. He was never sure why it seemed sad, but it did. He was only a year old at the time, and most people don’t remember back that far, but he remembered that room.

Besides all the sunny, summer memories, it seems that a lot of his earliest memories had to do with cold weather and crazy people. In the winter time, there were those registers in the house out of which flowed the most deliciously warm air. He couldn’t always get warmth from the people at home — not that they weren’t loving, just impatient at times, or too caught up in their own problems to spend much time with the kids — but the registers always were warm, at least in the winter. This mysterious metal grate in the floor, connected to a big pipe that curved away off into the bowels of the house, maybe drew its heat from volcanoes, or even from the fires of hell. He wasn’t sure where the heat came from, but he loved to stand on those registers. All the kids did, and they would stand on them bare footed till they had to jump off from the heat of the metal. In the summer, the registers swapped jobs with the weather and turned cold.

The boy would dream about those cold registers every night for several years. He would be asleep in the back bedroom, his grandparents’ bedroom, and in the dream that same register that was so warm was cold. It was always summer. Suddenly, he was awakened as the register came alive like some giant demon vacuum cleaner and sucked him into it. He would fly, fall, and tumble down slowly through earthy swirls of color, and then he would pop out of the sump pump pit in the basement into the arms of a whole lot of tall black Africans just like those in Tarzan movies, with bones in their noses, loin clouts about their hips, wild jewelry made of human bones around their necks, and wild red and white war paint smeared all over their bodies. They filled the basement, and they grabbed him and tried to sneak him out of the basement past, of all people, his father. (As far as he could tell, it was the first time he ever saw him.) He hollered out for his father to save him, but he was ignored. The natives had him to do with as they wished, and he would be horrified. At that, the dream would pass till another night.

He remembered his mother. She used to read Donald Duck comic books or Little Golden Books to him, and told him bedtime stories. By age six, she had stopped and had taken up standing next to the stove in front of one of those registers, eating out of the pans that dinner had been prepared in. The rest of the family would eat dinner together each night, the grandfather at the head of the table in the dining room with the rest — the grandmother, the boy’s brother, his two sisters, and him — to his right and left. Mama would eat at the stove. Not because she prepared dinner — the grandmother did that — but rather because she felt she should punish herself for a failed marriage. She apparently felt that she should be ostracized by society because she was a divorced, tainted woman, and if society wouldn’t do it, she would do it for them. She ate at the stove for so long that the boy started to have nightmares about it. This dream replaced the nightmare about the registers.

He would be asleep in the back bedroom, and the dream would begin as a gang of loud, noisy people rushed into the house and then into the room where he was. In the dream he was awakened by them, and they turned out to be those pesky natives again, all painted and wild. He couldn’t get away from them in this dream either. They would grab him and toss him into a half empty crate of oranges, just an oblong cardboard box with a layer of oranges fitted neatly into a thin, indented cardboard holder in the bottom for him to sit on and a section cut out of the top for him to stick his head out of. Then one of the natives would put the box with the boy in it up on his head to carry the box with boy out. As he passed through the kitchen on his way to the outside to who knew what, he would see the place packed with screaming savages, swirling around in a chaos in which he would see his grandfather and his father (the second time he ever saw him) being buffeted about. As he passed by the stove, there was Mama eating out of a pan, oblivious to everything that was happening. She just ignored the natives, and the natives just ignored her. (Savages are afraid of madness, it has been said.) As the boy passed by in his orange crate, he hollered out to her to save him, but either no sound came out of him or she didn’t hear. She had a pair of white shorts on that had pockets in the back, so he grabbed for the pocket to put his hand inside to pull and so get her attention. But the pockets were sewn shut. His hand would not go in. He could not get her attention. So he passed out of the kitchen to the outside into a gloom of native voices and fear. This would scare the wits out of the boy, and he would wake up relieved that he was not eaten or thrown under the feet of an elephant to be stomped to jelly. This same dream was repeated every night for what seemed like years.

But over time he learned to recognize nightmares for what they are. Occurring over and over again they slowly lost their terror as it dawned on the boy that they weren’t real but rather just dreams designed to torture offered up by the subconscious. In fact, they seemed to the boy to be very much like existence, much of which is patently false, frightening, and illusory. The boy’s nightmares, to him, foretold what life was to be. What with all the strange behavior that went on at this house, he needed to be toughened to survive adolescence, and maybe adulthood, too. He wasn’t so tough. A soul can become callused and a mind can become confused at having to tolerate too much without understanding why. At the boy’s house he had to tolerate a lot from everyone, and he didn’t understand why.

His maternal grandfather slept a lot. He either slept a lot or went into his storage closet to smoke where the grandmother wouldn’t catch him. He was a white‑headed, short, rotund, bespectacled type who wore union suits, braces, and sock suspenders. The boy remembered him asleep in his bed with his big khaki pants, white shirt, and black socks, snoring as if he were calling hogs. He’d do everything loudly. He had an ulcer, and at night, around nine o’clock, he would go down to the kitchen to drink a concoction of milk and mineral oil after which he would lean on the sink and belch. The boy didn’t know what it was for the longest time, and he never really gave it much thought like people who live next to railroad tracks never give the noise of passing freights any thought. When his grandfather belched the sound he made sounded like the scream someone would make if hit as hard as possible across the kidneys with a baseball bat.

After drinking the mineral oil laced milk, a terrible screeching “BAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” would emanate from downstairs like some demon possessed Scrooge. When the boy first noticed that this was a little out of the ordinary and started contemplating the possible reasons for this type of behavior, he thought that maybe the mixture of mineral oil and milk tasted so bad as to make you scream like that, but he later found out from his grandmother that he was only belching. By the time he was six or seven, he thought all old men drank mineral oil and milk and then belched at the top of their lungs for thirty seconds. Because of this, he was not looking forward to old age.

His maternal grandfather — the kids called him Granddad which they pronounced grindead — was born Martin Luther Madison, December 28, 1901, in Nashville. He was the son of Elbert Luther Madison and Louise O’Brien. Granddad finished the eight grade, took a stenographic course at Draughon’s Business College in Nashville, and had the distinction of being the youngest man from the state of Tennessee to lie his way into the army at the outbreak of World War I. He was only sixteen years old when he enlisted on July 8, 1918, under an assumed name, James King. He trained at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia where they discovered his true age and name just days before he was to ship out for Europe. But the army was evidently impressed with his pluck, and since he had turned seventeen — and since he was able to obtain his mother’s permission — they let him stay in. He was sent to Camp Sevier, South Carolina where his stenographic abilities were utilized by the Headquarters Detachment of the 20th Division. Granddad had made Battalion Sergeant Major and was headed for Officer’s Training School when the war ended. He left the army for the world of work on February 27, 1919 and later became a grocer like his father by purchasing his father’s old store at the corner of Twelfth Avenue South and Argyle Avenue, in Nashville. He spent twenty years doing that and didn’t make a lot of money. The Great Depression came along a few years after he bought the store, and it was very hard to make anything on the usual items carried by a grocer. But Granddad did make a bit of money by making and selling beer by license, obtained from the Nashville City Council, according to the boy’s grandmother, via bribery — that being the only way to get anything from the council then and to this day. And since the blacks and whites that lived in that borderline neighborhood would go hungry and spend their money on beer or hooch instead, Granddad and some of his whiskey-making buddies capitalized on it. He gave the food away almost, sold a lot of homemade beer and probably a bit of illegal booze, too, and spent his evenings drinking and playing cards or checkers with bootleggers Roy, Rex, and Shakey Gleason till they all passed out. Roy, Rex, and Shakey all summered up at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary for their fixation on fermentation.

Being of Scotch‑Irish‑English descent, it was only natural for him to like whiskey, but Granddad would also do barbiturates, which he got from a pharmacist friend by trading hooch for pills. Granddad would mix the pills and the whiskey, then pass out cold, and his wife would take him to Vanderbilt Hospital to have him awakened gently. After he visited Vanderbilt a few times, he finally caught on and stopped taking the pills, and he stopped drinking. He later sold the store and got a job with the Nashville Housing Authority, a local agency of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, supervising the rehabilitation of old run‑down neighborhoods. He had done some carpentry work, but what good that was for getting this type of supervisory job, no one knows. The boy’s grandfather had a gift of gab, though, and he could charm anybody. That’s how he probably got that job. He evidently enjoyed the work and had the opportunity in the 1950s to supervise the urban renewal of the predominately black slums that had grown up around the Tennessee State Capitol after the Civil War. His job was to relocate the families that lived there, and for his own pleasure he would write about those colorful people and his job as a kind of unofficial historian for Capitol Hill…

“Capitol Hill makes for reminiscence,” Granddad wrote. “A place you had rather not be after dark. Colorful characters — plenty of them. Some good in everyone of them and in lots of cases you didn’t have to look very far to see the good.

“Andrew Gooch lived on Jo Johnston. His surname was that of the person who had raised him, not the one to which he was born. But then under certain circumstances it’s convenient to have two names. From his home he had a coal and kindling business — sold a little moonshine, too. He was a pretty good business man. As a house near him became vacant, he would rent it, then sub‑rent sleeping rooms or apartments furnished with something that someone had discarded — things that were picked up, frequently before they hit the dump. Andrew and wife, Freda, moved out on Patterson Street and had another kindling business started before he was settled right good.

“Good Jelly had a place on 5th Avenue. His name has been in the newspapers since. Seems that he took to drink one night and decided that he needed some dinner even though he had spent all his cash on corn liquor. He walked into a small grocery store down on Jefferson Street, picked up a jar of beans put up by the owner’s wife and put out for sale, and headed out the door. The owner of the store took offense and fired a double-barreled, ten gage rabbit gun in his general direction. One barrel misfired but a small part of the other’s pattern caught Good Jelly in the upper left leg, bottom, and back. This didn’t stop Good Jelly and he didn’t drop the beans. He was caught by the police at his place on 5th Avenue as he tried to enter the front door, beans in hand. Seems that the man whom he had robbed knew him well and Good Jelly had even played cards with him a few times. Good Jelly took care of his sister’s children and was known as a kind man.

“Clark has made news on Music Row recently. One of his former neighbors remarked that he had made a record — and ‘can’t play nothing.’ An epileptic named Martha lived with Clark, maybe because she liked to drink and Clark generally had some change.

“Several who lived in the area went to the TB Hospital over across the river in Inglewood — one or two of them later returned.

“There was the evangelist who worked in the evenings drawing large and enthusiastic crowds and it was said the contributions were considerable. She was quite a dedicated worker. One morning about 10 or 11 o’clock I rapped on her door and at the first rap the door flew open accidentally. A young colored man who lived in the neighborhood was in bed with her and if I had not stepped back quickly pulling the door to again, it might could have been an embarrassing moment. Talked with her another day but the incident was never mentioned, of course.

“Each family or individual was visited at the new location after they moved to find out if they were pleased and if we could do something further for them. When there had been a death you might wonder which direction they had gone. Site occupants were given a preference to live in low rent housing if they chose. Gill and his common‑law wife lived on 8th Avenue and wanted to go to the new John Henry Hale homes as soon as they were opened. We helped them with details and they became legally married. This qualified them and they moved in. She has since died as have many others who were site occupants. One man and woman had lived together for thirty years. He went by her surname explaining that when they started living together the house was rented in her name.

“There were not nearly so many dwelling units in Public Housing then and frequently a selling job had to be done in order to supply them with decent, safe and sanitary housing at a price they could afford to pay — convenient to transportation, shopping facilities, churches, schools. All too often you would hear a declaration of genuine affection for a dog that was just like one of the family. (You can’t take a dog into Public Housing.) But before the project was cleared, there were packs of abandoned dogs roaming over the area. Rats and water bugs simply went next door when an old building was demolished. Then came the pest control man. And Mr. Hawkins wanted to know if all the pigeons had ever been re‑located.

“Along 9th Avenue there were several stores and taverns — this was after prohibition. The operators declared those people were up all night long. This is a neighborhood where quart bottles of beer are popular. In a white neighborhood they may buy a case of pints but practically no quarts. Sometimes the beer distributor is not always sure why this is so. One trick was to pour a headache powder into a bottle of beer and for 25 cents you could be really drunk. That beat $1.00 for a bottle of wine or $1.25 for a half pint…. Seems there must have been a whiskey store for every five acres of project.

“Baby Ruth was the main‑stay help at one of the taverns — a young colored woman, dependable, friendly, but serious and businesslike.

“It was on 9th where there was one flat containing eight two‑room apartments — four up, four down. Several families had enough children to fill the entire building, much less two rooms. The outdoor plumbing for this flat was out‑of‑order. Slop jars were used and emptied in the manhole in the street. Five of these families chose Public Housing, where our home visitor could acquaint them with easier ways to keep an apartment clean, acquaint them with various advantages and agencies available. Seems that some of them thought the bath tub was for storing coal.

“When Jones left 5th Avenue he paid $6,000 for a place on 6th Avenue near the Farmers Market and the city made him tear it down. The land will sell for more than he paid for the place but that seems to be overlooked.

“There was a gentleman of Assyrian extraction (Lebanese please, since Danny Thomas gained prominence) who visited his stock broker each and every working day. He retired from the grocery business he had operated in the area. Before this became the poor district many of our more prominent families had lived here. Some of the buildings were more than 100 years old.

“Other site occupants were Miss Geneva Reardon, court officer for Judge Doyle. Mrs. Fannie Arkovitz (and sister) was a stenographer (you wouldn’t believe it) for Mrs. Naff at the Ryman Auditorium. She often spoke of her brother — actually her brother‑in‑law — known as Jew Sam in the section that was known as Black Bottom. The Saad Brothers are still successful grocers nearby. Pinky Brown and her daughter, Stinker, also lived their. Pinky worked for a local Catholic Hospital, Saint Thomas, as a maid and it was said that she kept a pint of whiskey in the bottom of her mop pail. Hardboil Smack Mouth Pappy — no one seemed to know his name was Claude Hill — went barefoot. Chicago — tall, yellow, about 60 then — seemed proud of his nickname (what was his name?) and that he was THE Dice Man — not just A diceman — for Sue Bridgeforth’s New Era Club. Soldiers visiting from Fort Campbell were referred to a hotel on Crawford Street. The Operator of the hotel built a nice home for herself out Brick Church Pike. One club was known as The Alley Cat — the operator’s name was Church. There was an MD who had a dance hall on a third floor — and a band that traveled. And there were many others and other situations that you would not be expecting to find….

“My comment: Young folk, ready to enter prep school this fall, seeing that broad parkway with trees and grass, the multi‑storied buildings, the volume of traffic, would hardly remember the old street‑car shed, the ramshackle homes, nor understand the conditions described. But they all existed just a few short years ago.”

He was working for the Housing Authority when his youngest grandson James Martin Luther Fitzroy was born, and that was his last job before he retired. He spent his evenings watching television and staying out of the way of the boy’s mother and grandmother. The kids called the grandmother, “Mother”, since that was the job she had taken over from the boy’s mother. She was born Fannie Middleton Rice to John Allison Rice and Fannie Middleton Hull, January 8, 1903, in Nashville, the second of nine kids. Mother got through the eighth grade when she had to quit school when her father became ill. He was a plasterer, drank quite a bit, and ended up out of work for two years. There was very little money so the kids that could work, did. All of the brothers worked construction and drank quite a bit, and one later died of alcoholism. High cheek bones and jet black hair on all the children indicated a Cherokee great grandfather or great grandmother — no one seems to know for sure. Fannie met Luther when they were only teenagers taking a business course at Draughon`s Business College in Nashville. After the war, they were married on September 23, 1920. Ten years later, Fannie got tired of living in back of a store and pressured Jamie’s grandfather into buying a house at 804 Highland Avenue in a new subdivision called Belle Meade. Belle Meade was to become the swankiest place in town to live.

It was an almost finished house, stopped in mid‑construction by the depression, and they bought it for four thousand dollars. But they didn’t live in it right away. Luther got the bright idea of renting it to Shakey Gleason to pay off the note. Shakey moved in and promptly set up a still in the unfinished upstairs. The white corn liquor that he made he sold to Belle Meade Country Club. That’s how Shakey paid the rent that paid for the house that Fannie wanted. But Luther was always trying to sell the house since he had never really wanted it, and this made Fannie mad as hell. He would hang those little triangular flags like those seen at car lots, from the roof of the house to the front corners of the lot, along with big “FOR SALE” signs. Fannie would hear about the impending doom of her dream home and would head out to the house to tear the signs down. After Luther tried selling the place a few times, Fannie had become thoroughly enraged. The last time he tried to sell the place Fannie was going to rip the signs down as usual, but she couldn’t find her car keys. She was looking all about the store for them and tossing cans, papers, and other things around. She even tossed a loaded revolver across the room — they had been robbed a few times, and so Luther kept a lot of guns about — then she went down on her knees to look under the bed, and picked up by the muzzle a single barreled twelve‑gage shotgun that was hidden there. When she didn’t see the keys under the bed, she let the gun drop and it went off, blowing her left knee to smithereens. She was in the hospital for months, and the expense nearly broke Jamie’s grandfather, but she would not allow him to sell the house. He wisely dropped the matter and never tried to sell the place again.

It was in the 1930s, and there was no such thing as artificial joints. All the doctor could do was to allow the bones of her leg to fuse into one long bone, and she could never bend her knee again to look under beds. She refused to have the last operation that she needed, a skin‑graft to cover over the deep hole where her knee used to be, so she always had a deep pit in her leg that would drain constantly. She kept some gauze in her leg, moved into her house after it was paid off by the Belle Meade Country Club’s dependence on alcohol, and lived there till she gave it to the boy in 1984. She loved all of the grand kids, worked full time for the welfare department, fed the grandfather, and fought with the boy’s mother.

The mother, Fannie Louise Madison, was born in Nashville on June 19, 1922, eight months after her parents married. She was an only child because, according to Granddad, the grandmother went through too much pain in childbirth. The mother made up for the pain the grandmother missed by not having other children by making taking every opportunity to make her miserable. For all her life, the boy’s mother fought with the grandmother. The boy did not really know why they fought, except that he sometimes thought it was due to their being so terribly disappointed with one another. Mama was the only child, was probably the first child any of the grandmother’s brothers and sisters had, and was spoiled rotten by all of them. But she didn’t get from her parents the attention that she needed. They lived in back of a store but Mama was offered anything and everything that a girl at that time could have wanted, except for the attention she craved. She even went to college at Ward‑Belmont in Nashville, which was normally something that only the rich got to do. The grandfather even hired an elderly black man to act as chauffeur and drive Jamie’s mother to school each day. She was a knockout, wore the newest fashions, had a chauffeur, and lived in back of a grocery store.

Mama lacked only one quarter of graduation credits when she married the boy’s father, Hugh Damon Fitzroy, November 9, 1941. World War II had just started up, and they eloped. Jamie’s grandparents didn’t like him much, but Mama sure did. He was a handsome guy, and Mama had swooned over him because he was paying her a little attention. He left for the Navy and sea duty in the Pacific, spent the war on a Liberty ship, dabbled in black market trade, and made it back unharmed. They had their first child, Hugh Marlon Fitzroy, July 4, 1945. May 3, 1947, Celeste Louise Fitzroy was born. Jamie came last on December 25, 1951.

Jamie’s parents divorced on July 24, 1954 when he was two and a half years old. At birth, his father named Jamie Algar William McKinley Fitzroy. That was Jamie’s grandfather’s name, but after the divorce, his mother’s parents talked his mother into having it changed to James Martin Luther. James was Granddad’s first name. He was never sure why they wanted his name changed — his brother said that it had to do with the Alger Hiss trial, the two names being too similar for his grandparents’ comfort, but Jamie thought it was because they so despised his father that for him to be named after his father was just too much for them to bear — most anything would have been better than Algar McKinley, anyway.

Jamie’s mother divorced his father over his repeated infidelities and the abandonment of the family. Their marriage was probably complicated by the fact that Mama found it very hard to cut the apron strings. She had always wanted her parents to pay her a little attention and would try to do everything she could to please them. But under the difficult circumstances of her marriage, her dependence on her parents probably benefited her and her children.

Jamie’s parents built a house two doors down from Jamie’s grandparents on a lot that Jamie’s grandfather had given them. Jamie’s father spent a lot of time fighting with Mama, Mother, and Granddad over who had the final authority with the kids. He also fought with Jamie’s grandparents over why they would not support him and his family when he could not afford to. He was frequently out of work and was forever trying to borrow from them large sums of money to finance his business schemes. He also asked them when they were going to give their store to him to run. He felt that the business would be far more successful with him in command. But like all of his other suggestions, Jamie’s grandparents rejected this one.

When Jamie’s father realized that asking nicely was not going to soften up Jamie’s grandparents he tried the more sophisticated approach of threats. He would tell them that if they didn’t watch out he might move faraway with Mama and the kids, and they would never see their daughter or their grandchildren again. But by this time Jamie’s grandparents had developed an even stronger dislike for this young man than the one they had when they first met him.

Even creative threats would not cause Jamie’s grandparents to hand what little money they had over to Jamie’s father. Granddad, Mother, and Mama had also caught him out with other women several different times. When they confronted him with it, he would tell them to mind their own business. He owed Jamie’s grandparents for many months of grocery bills, and when asked to pay he refused telling them that he couldn’t afford it. Mother suggested to him that if he would quit running around with all these other women he could probably afford to take care of his family. But he stated that he had no intention of giving up his girl friends.

What really rankled Jamie’s grandparents about his father, however, was the way he treated the kids. Jamie’s grandmother wrote in one of her many letters to herself that she had him and his family to dinner many times, and that he had “never done more than nag at the children and their mother from beginning to end of each meal. He would tell the children how much like some animal they looked and scold them for having un-classical features and criticize the food and the shape of his wife’s face and tell her she was crazy that her education had never done her any good….”

When Jamie’s grandmother told Hugh that the kids needed toys, he said that they should be given a few sticks and they should pretend that they were toys. He once kicked Marlon’s little dog to death for no apparent reason. It was his way of trying to bully everyone in the family so that he might get his way.

One day Jamie’s father decided to carry out one of his many threats, and he told Mama that he was moving “to the country,” with or without her. Trying to please him, she moved with him outside of Nashville to Pasquo Road, off of Highway 100. Mama stayed only a few weeks. There was no running water or any way to wash there, and the place amounted to a shack. It also turned out that their next door neighbor was one of Jamie’s father’s girlfriends. Mama moved back in with her parents, and soon after, her husband decided to abandon her since, according to him, she and the kids were so much trouble. Jamie had just been born two months before, and living out there was impossible for her. Whatever the case, he left for good, and her heart was broken.

All Mama had ever wanted was a real family, but her husband’s behavior kept her from holding her family together. For some reason, she forever blamed her mother and father for her failed marriage, since they had pushed her to divorce Jamie’s father, and when she wasn’t blaming her parents for her problems, she would blame herself. Mama would only speak ill of Jamie’s father if she were pressured for an explanation for his leaving. She found it hard to hold a job. She became very depressed. Jamie’s father never came through with the child support. She eventually despaired. One day soon after that, Mama got mad and broke out a window upstairs with her fist. Jamie had heard that she was trying to kill herself, and heard that she was trying to throw him out of the window since Jamie was in the room at the time screaming. Mama told Jamie that those explanations weren’t true, that she was merely venting her anger on the windowpane. He didn’t even know if she cut herself, but his grandparents called the police and had her committed to Madison Sanitarium. She got a lot of insulin shock treatments there to help her behave, and when she came home she stood by the stove for fifteen years, except when fighting with Jamie’s grandmother or sometimes the yard man.

The yard man’s name was Mac MacMahon. He was tall, rangy, hook‑nosed, had a receding hairline, and chain‑smoked Lucky Strikes. He spoke with a bit of a speech impediment and a twangy southern drawl. Mac looked as if he had broken all ten commandments several times. He also had an artificial left arm with a hook on the end of it. He had been a combat infantryman serving in Europe during World War II when a German Mauser shattered his arm. He was unconscious on the battlefield for most of the day until some Americans stumbled upon him and carried him to an aid station. His arm had to be amputated which sent him home alive but disabled. Even so, he could out‑work most men. Mac would work all day in the stifling Tennessee summer heat and humidity at what seemed to Jamie a breakneck pace, sweat pouring off of him. He would mow the grass, cut brush, clean the basement, paint the house, or haul rock out of the creek to cement to the banks to keep them from washing out — most were make‑work projects that Granddad felt compelled to dream up. Most of the neighborhood kids affectionately referred to him as The Hook Man and kept a safe distance, but he was really a good guy most of the time, and the kids really got a kick out of that hook. Jamie would sit in Mac’s lap and bug him till he’d hunch his shoulder up and back to pull the hook’s two sides open, and then he’d grab him with it. It looked lethal, but it only pinched, and he’d fight like a wild dog to get away — it was all part of the game. Mac could get mean, though. Sometimes he would go out drinking, get tightened up, get into a fight with somebody, and really use the hook on them. That would land him in jail from which Jamie’s grandfather regularly extricated him. But all the family liked him a lot, and he always ate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with them.

That was Jamie’s house: his grandfather wandering about oblivious to all the world, his grandmother and her bad leg with a draining wound for a knee, Mama alternately eating off the stove and being chased around the house by the grandmother with a broom, and a yard man pushing a wheelbarrow around the house with a hook for a left arm. All of this was peppered with some pretty salty language that Mama and Mother used to communicate with each other. Granddad said that in all his life, the army included, he had never heard such cursing. With this batch of crazies running about the yard it was no wonder that many of the neighborhood kids weren’t allowed to come into the yard, much less play with the kids.

They got along OK, though, and this way of life didn’t bother Jamie much until he started realizing that most people didn’t have families like mine. Life became frightening with a little knowledge about other families. Also, the fact that a lot of mothers were horrified with the knowledge that their children were playing with the little Fitzroy heathen hurt him.

“We weren’t heathen, as far as I could tell,” Jamie thought to himself. “None of us were more than one‑eighth Cherokee, and we belonged to the Methodist Church, which I’ve always been suspicious of, since we were allowed to be members.”

Life seemed like the chaos of those early dreams that scared Jamie so. Lots of wild people, screaming at each other, and pulling at each other, and hurting each other, and frightening Jamie, and he had no one to rescue him as he was being swirled along by life completely at a loss as to what it was all about. He had no one to tell him why life seemed crazy. Everyone in his family was too tied up with his own problems to assist him with his, and consequently, he felt as if he were being sucked down that cold register to his doom. Not understanding how the register worked greatly intensified the fear of it. Life was like that for Jamie, and this fear of life haunted him for years. He couldn’t really shake it till He began to understand life’s significance a little better, and to realize that life, like those dreams, was, to a great extent, false, frightening, and illusory. Like the dreams, He had to learn to ignore the fear in life if He didn’t want it to envelope him, or to smother him, or to toss him under the feet of an elephant to be stomped to jelly.

Jamie lay on the floor by the register with a cobalt Christmas ornament in his hand. He stared up at the ceiling, memories in a trance. Truman McNamarah was the man’s name. He had called Jamie up out of the blue and had suggested a meeting. Jamie was young, a senior majoring in computer science at UC-San Jose. Jamie had aggressively pursued the school due to its proximity to Silicon Valley. He had thought about Stanford, but that school seemed out of his reach. Regardless, UC-SJ offered the right price and proximity to something very dear to his heart: computers and technology.

McNamarah had been reticent to explain exactly what he wanted. He would only say that it had to do with a potential job offer. How he knew about Jamie, Jamie wasn’t sure. But Jamie didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over the slight mystery of the call. He merely filed the short discussion away in the back of his mind, noted a time, date, and place set for the meeting and went back to his programming. It was ten days before his mid-terms in the Winter of 1996.

Two days later, Jamie was heading over to the library to meet McNamarah. The sun had been shining that day as it usually did in the semi-desert environment. Jamie was dressed in his usual predominantly dark clothes each piece of which was of a single color. He remembered that he wore a Patagonia dark purple cotton pullover, black pants with cuffs, and a pair of black Hush Puppies (his then and current favorite). He remembered that even then he felt pathologically uncomfortable in stripes or other multi-colored clothing. He remembered that he entered the library just as a wall of clouds poured over the Santa Cruz Mountains like some mystical waterfall of the Gods, suddenly obscuring the sun.

McNamarah had been specific that they meet in a private place. Jamie suggested the library since it provided some private study rooms scattered throughout the stacks. Meeting in the single study room on the north side of the fourth floor, Jamie arrived early to find that McNamarah had arrived even earlier.

His memory jumped a four year quanta forward.


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