14 Aug Y.E. Lucas
CLIFTON O. [EXCERPT]
C: My family situation is somewhat unusual in the sense that it encompasses—let’s just call it a balance of two worlds. See, on my father’s side, I have two uncles, and one of these uncles, Uncle Gerald, is a preacher, while the other uncle, Uncle Benjamin—well, Uncle Benjamin is a pimp. Now, before you go chiding and deriding this later line of work, let me say that, throughout my youth, I respected both my uncles equally and still do. B. and Uncle Gerald impacted me strongly not only as a man, but also as an artist, and to tell the truth, without either one of them, I don’t believe I’d be the man I am today.
C: This was Uncle Gerald: a man who stepped before a crowd of two hundred and in seconds provoked earthquakes of laughter or vales of tears. My uncle interwove biblical passages with anecdotes from congregants’ daily existences. Thus, when Terrence Nichols awoke one morning devoid of eyesight, the story of Job—told by my uncle with great swellings that held the parish transfixed—taught Terrence what seemed a malediction was in fact God testing him. Jesus forgave, my uncle reminded congregants, through the Parable of Two Debtors, when the Henson boy accidentally shot his friend. And when Josephine Teller found that tumor had resprouted after she’d celebrated its thousand-dollar removal, my uncle spoke of the hope and love that kept us astir, and quoted a passage from scripture: Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. My uncle sought to ennoble congregants through prayer. He had a gift for assembling sentences, manipulating words. He showed his people’s suffering wasn’t for naught, but rather part in parcel of a master plan, intricately designed not in, but for this world.
C: The thing about Uncle B. was that he wasn’t a pimp like any pimp—he was a pimp with morals, and more than anyone else, he taught me that, as long as people aren’t harming themselves or harming others, I should respect their decisions. The women B. took under his wing were lovely females with rough days behind them, often kids to raise, not to mention school tuitions. Before signing a woman on to his business, my uncle held a meeting with her to determine whether she really desired this job. He was realistic, outlining the risks—not one of my uncle’s women, I should specify, ever wound herself in a rut on account of his business. What’s more, though it made pimping harder for himself, my uncle stood by a five-year rule. His business was a place of transition, a means by which a lady could get on her feet. Never would my uncle want his women to depend on prostitution. Incredibly enough, his system worked. My uncle’s employees went on to get degrees in accounting, education, law, politics, all the while crediting my uncle for his contribution. Years later, they stopped by his club to express their gratitude, and to pinch the cheek of young Clifton Owens, slumped over homework at the bar.
Those women—how they loved teasing that adorable nephew when his parents couldn’t mind him after school. This was also the time I learned to mix drinks. What a sight to behold: five-year-old Clifton Owens squeezing lemon juice into whiskey sours, dropping olives into martinis. Still my uncle dissolves into giggles when I refuse alcohol: the only Owens man, aside from my brother, who doesn’t drink and never has. Truth be told, though, if anyone should understand why I have refrained from consuming alcohol or drugs, right down to caffeine, it should be my uncle. Owens men are known for their addictive personalities, and if I allow even one lick of rum to touch my tongue, I know I’ll never quit. Know this about me: I do things in extremes.
C: Ironically, if Uncle B.’s club was where I learned to respect women, Uncle Gerald’s church was where I learned to charm the panties off ladies, as my grandfather says Owens men are so inclined. The peculiar and, all who were present would tell you, hilarious event under question concerns a solo to which I’d been assigned. A tradition among men of my family was to take part in the choir, at least for a handful of years, and to this rule I was no exception—because how Preacher Gerald did treasure his nephew’s participation. See, although you might remember my voice as deep, as a kid I boasted this touching, some even said angelic, falsetto of a voice. Young Clifton Owens, projecting O-save-me-Lord’s and Hallelujah’s into a crowd of churchgoers, who hushed whining children, saying Listen, listen to that boy! I did my thing up there, conscious, yes, of my community’s reverence and uncle’s pride. At the end of the service, I’d be all thank you, thank you very much’s while, blushing, I’d practice strong handshakes and buckle under great lipsticked smooches. By the time I’d reach my uncle, my arm would dangle sorely, my face a display of red and purple smears, and Uncle Gerald would laugh, O how he’d laugh, that massive blissful man.
The day I remember most vividly, my uncle, along with other choir members, had been looking forward to for some time: on this day, twelve year old Clifton Owens would sing the solo of “The Love of God,” a traditional Baptist tune arranged by Magda Williams, who also played the piano—beautifully, might I add. Kneelers squeaked closed. The song began with Teesha Baker, hair in plaits as usual, chanting, “O love of God, how rich and pure!” With a dip of Mr. Yves’s baton, the other choir members embarked. “O love, O love, O love,” bellowed the men, as the women kept the melody, and us kids sprinkled the song with ooooooh. Mr. Yves fixed his eyes on mine, arched his body forward. And as the choir decrescendoed, up stepped our grinning brother Clifton, a looker if there ever was one—Butcher James clasped his hands, stubby Glenda craned her neck—and I took a deep breath and sang.
Now, before I continue, I’d like to make one things clear: I took on the solo of “The Love of God” with all good intention, hoping to swell churchgoers’ hearts. And at the beginning, I did succeed: “When hoary time shall pass away,” I sang, causing nods and grins to sweep across the crowd. Yes, such an effect I’d hoped for, and had it been within my control, boy do I swear I’d have gone on just so.
The first crack to my voice landed on the second verse, and taken aback by what seemed a frog in my throat, I for a moment paused. The hums and piano went on without me. The crowd stared confused. “It goes beyond the highest—” My voice slid to the lowest octave. In my periphery, Mr. Yves glared at me with alarm. “It goes beyond the—” Every word now came out in a baritone I’d never before known. Madga Williams raised her hands from the piano, and only those singers who believed a little encouragement would restore my falsetto continued to hum.
In retrospect, I can acknowledge that the most sensible thing to do in this awkward situation would have been to take a step back and allow the melody to resume. But a bit like now, I had a proud streak as a kid, and this glitch was too rich in potential to ignore. I inhaled, and this time when my voice came out intensely masculine, I crooned a song no longer called “The Love of God,” but “The Love of Woman.” “Than tongue or pen can ever tell,” I drew out the word “tongue,” so that congregants envisioned mine stroking my palate. “Could we with ink the ocean fill,” I pursed my lips for this tribute to moistures of all kinds. In the third row, Clara Richards ogled me. “Would drain the ocean dry,” I contemplated her wide forehead, her slender neck, lower, lower, until she turned away flushing, and women throughout the church began crossing and uncrossing their legs and—Christ be with you—fanning themselves with Tabernacle Picnic flyers.
How I could have gone on, teasing and pleasing with my song, had it not been for a certain lady burning, no not with desire, but with fury in the very first row. It was an audience member—I’m not sure who—with a gasp signaled me to her presence, and hardly had I time to turn and identify the steaming face bearing down on mine as Grandma’s did she snatch my ear. Outside, she kicked my behind—not in all the United States would you find a grandma who kicked like mine.
“Pick your switch,” she growled, because that’s how we did it in my hometown, the child finding his own whip.
“Aw, please!” I begged, “I was just—”
But my grandma was a woman of principle and did not have to shake her head to tell me moaning would do no good.
That Sunday, my grandma gave me the worst beating she ever would, screaming red slashes on my butt that made sitting down living hell for weeks. Still, I couldn’t blame my grandma for that whipping which, all church ladies would assure you, was far from undeserved.
C: Uncle Gerald wanted me to follow in his footsteps as a preacher, while Uncle Benjamin thought I’d do admirably as a pimp. The charisma I had for the church position, the voice and gift of language. As for the club post, I’d work off of B.’s values, never exploiting my women. Clifton, the congregants love you. Clifton, what will the ladies do without you? I listened to both my uncles, considered their arguments. No need to finish high school, which, after all, for Florence boys, only led to trade gigs, drudge jobs. Both the church and club would guarantee stable incomes with which to support Dean.