Issue #73, Memoir
Bloodlines and Bitter Syrup
Bloodlines and Bitter Syrup
I hold the United States government personally responsible for the time I did in Huntsville. Not “personally responsible” in the Uncle-Sam-in-a-top-hat-pointing-a-sinewy-finger-at-you kind of way, but “personally responsible” in the flap-of-a-Brazilian-butterfly’s-wings-sets-off-a-tornado-in-Texas kind of way.
The butterfly, in this case, was a guy the kids in my neighborhood called Junior Blockhead. Junior because he was the second, Blockhead because it played with his last name and because he “wasn’t right” after his time in the US military. Junior lived next door, and he so loved my mother that he thought it was his business what happened to her only begotten son. Junior was convinced I had promise, a precious commodity, and that the presence of a father figure was what I needed to make good on said promise.
I hadn’t done anything too horrible as far as tweenaged horrors go. But when I started junior high school, straight As became Bs, and Bs became a general disinterest in all things academic. Junior got it into his head that he was the one to right the ship. His first plan was to marry my mother and become the father I needed, but that plan went awry on account of the little fact that my mom had already married two blockheads and had no interest in adding a third to the list. (My mother may or may not have been the person who christened him “Junior Blockhead,” and I may or may not have been the one who infected the neighborhood kids with his new moniker.)
Before the butterfly flap, my mother and I lived in Austin, and my father was off somewhere doing whatever deadbeats do to fill all the free time deadbeating leaves on their hands. They had separated when I was in kindergarten. But one day, Junior ran into my father—they knew each other in the way that everyone knew everyone in our neighborhood—and he directed their first-time-in-a-long-time chitchat toward the topic of my unfulfilled potential and need for a father figure. In Junior’s mind, there was no room for error when it came to my future: a father, any father, would set me on the right path, or I would end up dead or in prison.
My father is, to use the technical term, an asshole. A gargantuan, self-obsessed, self-absorbed, aloof, manipulative, petty, always-right, tall-tale-telling, egomaniacal, would-drown-in-a-lake-trying-to-kiss-his-own-reflection asshole.
But he was my asshole, and, at that time, I loved him more than anything. What I loved most were his stories. He was an incredible raconteur, something between a jazz man and a rhapsode. And like any good jazz man, he had a repertoire of stories that he would repeat with flourishes of improv and bravado. He told stories for sport. His eyes would flash incandescent, Van Gogh’s Starry Night in each pupil, the staccato rhythm of his laughter punctuating every phrase. He knew how to play it up for the cheap seats. His voice was always much louder than the spaces of our home required; metaphors and obscure references ricocheted and reverberated off the walls of whatever room he was in. He held the performance together with his arms, which conducted the stories as they made their inevitable veers into delusional hyperbole. Whenever he was home, he performed, incessantly.
And the magic of it all was that he performed only for my mother and me. No one beyond the walls of our home would have believed the transformation that took place when he was on our private stage. As far as the world knew, he was soft-spoken. Blessed are the meek—his favorite beatitude. When I was in elementary school, I heard this as “be attitude,” and assumed that meekness, which I looked up in the dictionary, was the attitudinal costume that he put on before going out. The world is such a small place to a child, and he seemed to know every corner of it. I admired his fiery brilliance. Back then, I loved him when he would visit, and missed him when he was not there. I thought of him in that silent, dark space between my nightly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and sleep.
Maybe I’d see him once or twice in good years. My elementary school teachers would sometimes tell me that they’d seen my father in the hallway, or he would sometimes leave money for me in the front office. But I don’t remember seeing or talking to him during those surreptitious visits.
So, imagine my surprise when, thanks to the tiniest flap of a blockhead butterfly’s wings, I found myself sitting opposite of my father at a restaurant, sharing a pancake breakfast. Going to a restaurant was even more of a rarity than seeing my father. But to have both, simultaneously, was almost unfathomable. It was like that time it “snowed” in Austin. Yes, the snow melted and disappeared before it hit the pavement. But for that brief moment, we had something special.
This moment was less miraculous for my father. For him, this was not a father-son breakfast. It was, apparently, some kind of test to determine whether I was worthy of the investment of his time.
Looking back on it, I don’t think he meant for it to be a test. I think he was just an underprepared father with mental health issues doing the best he could to connect with an estranged son. (Decades later, my mother would say to me, in passing, “Oh, you know your father’s a schizophrenic.” She said it the way you might say “You know your father likes pastrami.” It was, for her, just one personality trait among many. I did not know that. If you’ve never rewritten your family history against an entry in the DSM, I strongly encourage you to give it a shot. You’d be surprised how it makes everything fall into place.)
Anyway, apparently I failed the test. Momma didn’t believe that I had failed in the way that my father said I’d failed. So they administered the test a second time, this time at our kitchen table, with pancakes Momma made. This time I passed. And then they started yelling at each other.
I told you he didn’t eat no pancakes in public with his bare hands.
I know what I saw—that shit was uncouth.
Sometime after the pancake miracle/debacle, my mother and father decided to get back together, to “make it work, for our son.” After they got back together, I saw him a bit more—say, monthly rather than annual visits. (He was, among other things, a traveling salesman. He mastered the traveling but, judging from our financial situation, forgot to get around to the second bit of the job title.)
But I chafed at his one-off attempts at discipline. When Momma got onto me, I had to listen because she had put in the time. I mean, the word graveyard was right in the name of the shift she worked to put food on the table; she was killing herself to provide. When I ignored her, a small sliver of me knew that I was ignoring my own best interests. But my father just didn’t carry the same kind of street cred as an actual parent—a flesh-and-blood, day-in-and-day-out parent, there to put a last-minute signature on the permission slip for the big dance for you and to pick you up after the post-dance heartbreak.
They tried to make it work, that is, to make me work, for about two years. But, by the time I finished the eighth grade, its unworkability had made itself palpable. And it was around the time that its unworkability exposed itself that Momma had one of her eureka moments: a father figure wasn’t the missing ingredient. What I needed instead was “a fresh start.” (I can see now that the move would be good for her too. It was also around this same time that the skin on her face, usually a deep mahogany polka-dotted with constellations of ebony moles, was replaced by a Holstein patchwork. The white splotches of discoloration, her doctor told us, were stress related.)
Anyone who knows anything about Texas will tell you that, if you are destined to live there, the ring of purgatory you’re aiming for is the Hill Country. Hill Country rolls on endlessly, and wildflowers spring from the ground like mid-use paintbrushes. I grew up in Austin, ground zero of Hill Country bliss—umami oozing from every meal, dot of blue in a sea of red, live music lingering on hot summer air. But I was destined to fail in Austin, Momma decided, and moving to Huntsville would be good for me.
Huntsville is in Texas, Texas. My father’s family is from Huntsville. Been there forever. His mother’s mother named one of the streets there—Mesquite—and my father owns a billion acres there. (Okay, obviously not a billion, but my father disowned me two decades ago, so, pending our reconciliation, you’ll just have to trust my estimate.) I had no interest in moving there. So, I told Momma: I’m not going. She said: yes, you are. I said: no, I’m not. She said yes. I said no. She said yes. I said no, I’m not moving to Huntsville, because you’re stupid and I hate you so go away. She said okay, we won’t go. And then, right in the middle of my eighth-grade summer, a moving truck pulled up the slope of my driveway, punctuating both the summer and the argument about whether or not we were moving. Lying, in my mother’s Christian calculus, was better than fighting. Having officially ruined my adolescence, the blockhead butterfly, self-satisfied smirk on face, flapped away.
• • •
Goddamit, I’m pretty. The bitches see it. Them niggas do too. That’s why they hate me. It’s hard work being this pretty all the goddam time. Yeah, we can play shirts and skins. The mamacitas start cooing about how my stomach look like a barrita de chocolate. I’m killing these niggas. And one. They can’t hold me. They gotta foul me. They can’t do shit else. Cause these niggas don’t think. They act like they can just bulldoze they way through. You gotta play the angles. I see you sweating. Let the game work for you. Play the angle you got. This court ain’t even regulation size. It’s too small. You don’t have to play defense on a court this size. The court play defense for you, push you outta bounds when a regulation-style situation might of kept you in. Just play the angles. You outta bounds nigga. My ball. Check up. Backboard bitch. What, my nigga? I don’t need to foul your sorry ass. You probably fouled yourself. You the one been fouling me all game. You a fouling ass nigga. You foul. Do something then. Don’t you ever put your fucking hands on me again. My daddy don’t even touch me. I’ll cut you nigga. I’ll fucking cut you.
• • •
You’ll know you’ve arrived in Huntsville when pine trees stage a rebellion on the East Texas landscape and begin shooting into the sky endlessly. And you’ll know you’ve reached the plot of land my father owns in Huntsville when you look out past the barbed-wire fence on the side of the road and into the wilderness and see the tiniest, shittiest possible example of Southern architecture. This house, I would learn later, was a custom-built gift from my grandmother to my father. Some people, I suppose, are bad gift givers.
We couldn’t drive all the way up to the house, because the lawn, neglected and lonely, had grown to human height. The grass looked more like wheat from an alien planet than suburban Kentucky bluegrass. As we hacked our way through the alien grass, I found my first invisible snake. For a city boy from Austin, it’s easy to find invisible snakes anywhere you go in the East Texas wildlands—trust me, they’ll be there. The wind will rustle a pine cone against the woodland floor and you’ll swear you heard a rattle. Or you’ll catch a peripheral glance of a field mouse scurrying about and you’ll assume she’s an invisible snake (when, obviously, she was just scampering away from one).
Many Texans know the shortest Bible verse by heart—Jesus wept. But what they may not know is that the verse originates from Jesus’s time in Huntsville. I am still not exactly sure what I did to warrant the move. But, after a childhood in Austin, life in Huntsville felt like penance for some unspoken felony.
Years later, when I was in college, a truck in front of me on the highway kicked a pebble into my windshield, leaving a tiny nick in the glass. No worries, I can deal with that, I thought. But what started as a tiny impression gradually splintered, first into a Y-shaped crack running the width and length of the windshield, and then into a shattered spiderweb, which obstructed my entire field of vision. In this metaphor, I think that the gradual transformation from tiny crack to Y-splinter to spiderweb that obfuscates your entire view of what’s in front of you represents the way my disdain for Huntsville grew. But then again maybe Huntsville was the truck—obnoxious and oblivious to all the reasons why it was not, contrary to its self-image, “charming”—and the shattered windshield, the soul of anyone who has to live there.
It’s hard to point to one particular reason why I hated Huntsville. It was more of a constellation of crappiness. You already know about the invisible snake infestation. On top of that, I also had to fetch water. My mother was always a single mother. This was true no matter the metric of singleness, but it was definitely true when it came to money. Even with my father and his billions of acres of land around, my mother’s wallet was very much single, and she did not have cash on hand to account for those unexpected surprises that inevitably arise when you move to a new place. In Huntsville, the surprise was that the city water supply did not reach out to our home; country folk were responsible for supplying their own well water. There was no well, and we could not afford to dig one, so we went without running water for the first year or so. Fetching water required a trek through the woods and over invisible snakes to a nearby stream. Splashing around in an inch of chilly bathtub water in winter and waiting for Momma to arrive with the next pot of boiled water was more than enough to make me long for the simple joy of an Austin shower.
I also hated Huntsville’s suffocating tininess. With a town that size, people assume they know what they need to know about you when they hear your last name. One time, when I introduced myself to a kid from my high school, he said: “Bridges. I bet you want to be a teacher. Every Bridges I know is a teacher.” Returning the favor, I asked him about his predestined profession. “Us? We’re criminals. That’s why I don’t get along with that kid.” He pointed in the direction of some student I hadn’t met. “His family’s police.” I chalk his borderline clairvoyance up to one of two things: he made an astronomically lucky guess—as it happens, I did want to be a teacher—or there was something to his small-town magic trick, the equivalent of pulling my career card from a hat. Maybe his observations of family cycles in Huntsville had revealed one of the secret forces of human cosmology: history does not repeat herself, so you better listen to what she tells you about the trajectories of family lines the first time she says it.
There was also the further complication that I share my name with my father and two of my brothers. There was a time when I would tell people the truth when they commented on my suffix. I would tell them that I am “the fourth, but horizontally, not vertically, George Foreman–style, not generationally. As in, my father has three sons, we all have his name, and I’m the last one, which makes me the fourth William.” From here, people would inevitably ask: How do you tell one another apart? Doesn’t that get confusing? The truth of the matter is that it didn’t get confusing at all—or, rather, it was confusing, but not in the way they thought it was, because my brothers and I don’t know each other, because we’ve never met, because we all have different mothers.
But people’s expressions changed when I told them this truth, so I learned that this was not the truth that people want to hear. So now, when they ask me how we solve the confusion, I tell them that we all have nicknames, which is not untrue. To which they reply, Tell me yours. To which I say, with a slight smirk, I’ll never tell you mine. And then I let their imagination auto-correct my family history. I let them imagine loving family vacations and gentle ribbings over childhood nicknames rather than the messy truth of it all.
One of my brothers, William Henry Bridges II, attended Huntsville High School many years before I did. The high school career of this second William left quite the wake; his trivia prowess was especially renowned. Teachers who knew both of us would, as soon as they heard my name, say: “William Henry! I bet you’re amazing with trivia, just like your brother.” Incorrect. The director of the quiz bowl, who recruited me based on name and name alone, was visibly distraught at what had gone wrong in the leap from one William Henry to the next.
Huntsville’s need for everyone to have a place and to be put in their place followed me into the high school cafeteria. Austin was an integrated city, or, rather, it was as integrated as a city in Texas could be. In Austin, you ate wherever and with whomever. The cafeteria in Huntsville High School in 1997, on the other hand, served no pretensions of liberal lunching. This meant that the “new kid” had to pick a group. Huntsville is a microcosmic town, so every friend is a childhood friend—which is fine, unless you’re the new kid without any Huntsville childhood friends. I was invited, by default, to one of the black tables. When that didn’t work out, I rotated to the Mexican table, which had a couple of kids I knew from the soccer team. When that didn’t work, I started looking for ways to eat alone.
I noticed a restroom within dashing distance of the cafeteria. It was a fairly easy escape mission: grab a few items from the lunch line, stuff the items into my pockets as inconspicuously as possible, slink over to the restroom, and slide into a bathroom stall. From there, it was simply a matter of chewing quietly enough to leave no sonic evidence of my crime whenever someone entered the restroom. There was something oddly comforting about being alone.
I tell you all of this to say that, contrary to my mother’s promises, Huntsville did not grow on me. I agreed with Jesus—life in Huntsville was enough to bring a tear to anybody’s eye. Invisible snakes, fetching water, the smallness of the town, segregated lunch, eating on the toilet . . . any one of these would have been more than enough to inspire one of my patented teenaged temper tantrums.
After hearing my case about the horrors of Huntsville for the first six months of our time there, my mother agreed to let me live on my own in Austin. (It was a short-lived, half-semester experiment; it turns out that, as a broke fourteen-year-old, you can’t afford to live on your own in a major metropolitan area.) I took the Greyhound bus from Huntsville to Austin. The bus was populated by several freshly minted free men in ill-fitting clothes on their way home to search for their pre-prison lives. A group of these men decided that their experiences in prison had transformed them into public servants, and that their public service would begin with me. One of these converted life counselors was a massive man with tributaries of deep brown scars and veins running along his face and body. I think he had gravel in his throat. At least that would explain his rhoticism. When I told him I was going to live on my own in Austin, he gave me a piece of advice. Sometimes life gets tough. And you get angee. But, whateva you do, man, no matta how tough things get, don’t slit no thoats, man. Don’t slit no thoats.
What I hated the most about Huntsville was the way the criminal justice system permeates every bit of life there. Or maybe it’s an injustice system. Whatever it is, it’s everywhere in Huntsville, which sits smack in the buckle of the American death belt—the swath of Southern states where the majority of all executions occur. The prison system is the city’s center of gravity. It’s on the news. It’s in the college curriculum. It’s in the sharp edges of your girlfriend’s mother’s voice after a long shift of being catcalled by horny, lonely prisoners.
What I’m trying to say is, the city inevitably makes your mind go to prison. You can start off with some everyday task—say, making a quick trip to Mr. Hamburger, where for $6.55 you can get a #4, an “Old Sparky,” named after the electric chair, or if you’re willing to splurge another seventy-nine cents, you can upgrade to the “Killer Burger,” with double meat and double cheese. Or you can stop at a red light and notice a gang of prisoners enjoying a game of basketball across the street. This is Huntsville, so, yes, you can see the prisoners at play right from the comfort of your car. They’ll just do the things young men do when they play basketball—talking shit, arguing over who fouled whom, debating the rules of the game, or whatever. And then, an errant jumper will send the ball sailing in the direction of your car. A young man, usually black or brown, and always sticky with Texas sweat, will jog briskly over to the ball, and, right before he retrieves it from against the fence, your eyes might meet his. He’ll slip you a smile, or avert his gaze, or roll his eyes at your blatant display of prison tourism, or do whatever his mood and personality dictate that day, and then he’ll jog back over to the game. And you won’t notice that your light has turned green, and before the Southern-hospitality light-touch honk behind you snaps you out of your prison daydream, you’ll think to yourself: You know, he’s just a regular guy, just like me. I could be him, and he could be me, or my brother, or my father, or his father, or his father’s father, or my son.
When I lived in Huntsville, there was a man with my name serving time there. My brother. The third. I never met him.
My brother’s story is not my story to tell. I don’t know enough of him to tell it. The only thing I truly know about him is that we share a name, a byproduct of my father’s narcissism. If I tried to tell his story, it wouldn’t come out right; it would be staccato and scattershot and caesural, a dream-logic jumble of guys I knew from the block, cinematic stereotypes and jump cuts, Tupac lyrics, journalistic snippets I gathered from media reports about him, and things I heard about him during those times when my father talked at me about how much better than me his other children were—my half-sister the brilliant surgeon, the trivia expert (who went on to become a lawyer), hell, even the inmate.
All I can say is that my brother’s nickname is Pretty William, that he killed a man over a basketball game, and that he tried to kill the officers who apprehended him. I know that he is the kind of person who would rather shoot himself in the head than be apprehended and incarcerated, that his suicide attempt was unsuccessful, and that he ended up in prison. I also know that my father told him that he would end up there, which means that my father knew he would end up there. It also means that my father didn’t care enough to do enough to keep him from ending up there.
My father told me about my brother shortly after we moved to Huntsville. His tone had the mark of someone retelling the plot of a B-level action flick—a mix of sardonic amusement and mild entertainment punctuated by snorts and chuckles. It was the same tone he used when he told me about how his great-grandfather had decapitated his great-grandmother because—according to my father’s report—she had served him pancakes with bitter syrup. And then, my great-grandfather tried, unsuccessfully, to frame his son for the murder. In my father’s mind, the entire ordeal was both mildly amusing and passingly entertaining. To this day, I’m not sure why he would tell me this story as an elementary school student beyond, of course, his desire to hear his own voice in action.
(I learned much later that the two had had a dispute over what to do with my great-great-grandmother’s money: she wanted to save it for her children’s education, and he wanted to spend it. I also learned that, although the murder was real, the bit about decapitation was either an embellishment added to the story in its retellings over the years or, more likely, another one of my father’s hyperbolic flourishes.)
I know one other thing about this brother I’ve never met: I love him. I recently discovered that one characteristic of love is “invasive thoughts”—whether you want to or not, you think, seemingly at random but also regularly, about people you love. Thoughts of them invade your mind, pushing aside other, more context-appropriate thoughts in order to make space in your imagination. Maybe this is why, when I try to articulate for my students why I think it is better to be killed than to kill, my mind wanders to this brother. Or maybe it’s why when my son, a big-hearted ball of lean muscle and coiled anger, boa-constricts his face in childhood rage over what is and what isn’t fair, I don’t see a tantrum, I see his uncle, and his great-great-great-grandfather before him. (And just so you know, my son’s name, heaven help us, decidedly is not William Henry Bridges the Fifth.) Maybe this explains the nightmares I started having, after I moved to Huntsville, of being murdered—sometimes by my brother, sometimes by his victim’s remains, sometimes by a faceless killer. Maybe the anxiety-induced phantom pains that send my mind to him, maybe these words you’re reading, maybe my desperate need to apologize for the name we share and the pain this name carries with it—I’m sorry me and my brothers and our father stabbed your son to death over a basketball game, ma’am—maybe it’s all love in a place where it shouldn’t be. Invasive. Maybe.
I realize that there is an order to things, that if you subtract before you exponentiate you’ll never get the right answer, that stories are supposed to be told with beginnings, middles, and ends. That things are supposed to flow smooth and nice and easy. But, from the moment I learned about the murders in our family history, the order of operations became a luxury forever lost to me. Those stories stole my ability to stay in the present and think in neat, linear timelines. No, maybe it was before the stories. It was from that moment in the fifth grade when a teacher—white and (I’m assuming) liberal and well-intentioned—in a woefully underfunded public school tried to explain slavery to me and a roomful of other black faces. Maybe I lost it the moment he mumbled through an explanation of why, so long ago, people who looked like him wanted to enchain people who looked like me. Or maybe it wasn’t the stories at all. Maybe when you kidnap a people, force them into the suffocating quarters of the hold below, transport them across the ocean like living cargo, and beat the aspiration out of them until they do your bidding, maybe the whole ordeal leaves generation after generation of their progeny with no way to put their family histories back together again. Because none of it follows the order of things. The men who came before me are so unlike the person I imagine myself to be. And I can’t shake the sensation that our history will never add up to anything, and that the pain will just keep multiplying over the generations, and that the end product will keep showing itself again and again, giving us tiny glimpses of what came before and what will come to be, but always doing so in its own time and at the most inopportune of moments.
After I heard about my brother, I started imagining a voice in my head. I knew it wasn’t my brother’s voice, because I’d never heard his before. But it wasn’t not my brother’s voice. It would say stuff like shut up, nigga. Don’t nobody wanna hear yo sob story. You on that revisionist history shit. Crying on a toilet. You old pussy ass bitch ass nigga. Nut up and go out in that lunchroom. You worse than the niggas in here. They be on that revisionist history shit too. Seem like everybody in this motherfucker got some sob story. They innocent. Bitch please. You ain’t never gone catch me pulling no shit like that. I know I did it. Can’t never forget it. I see the bloodlines where I cut him every night in my dreams. Shit like that don’t never go away. Stuff like that. I carry that voice with me everywhere I go. It’s a little reminder of where we come from, I guess. Or maybe it is just the imaginings of a boy without a home in Huntsville. Whatever it is, it comes and goes when it wants. If I could lock it away, make it follow the order of operations, I would. But it’s so much easier to incarcerate bodies than histories.
* Illustration by Anna Hall
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