THE EGG HEADS
It seemed My Daddy had been sleeping only minutes when he found himself struggling under thick eyes to capture the face of his eldest daughter Jacqueline. It was as though he were deft, unable to hear as he watched her laugh and talk while she pulled on his arm. His body and senses would not rise from the dark sleep that had swallowed him. “My Daddy, c’mon on, you promised, promised.” The words tumbled through the fog of his mind. His tongue stumbled to beg what time it was but peals of laughter bathed his ears and he felt his forehead being stroked as she repeated over and over, “But My Daddy, you promised.” Her skin was still wet with the wash of her bath and as always he was instantly disarmed and incapable of denying her a single wish. His pot belly five foot five inch flesh, prickled with pain, began to pull itself up and was literally enveloped with shoulders, thighs, and soft little faces. His avalanche of children had descended upon him, squealing, “My Daddy, My Daddy.” Even the baby had been pressed to his chest, and there was no denying that the promised outing was well on its way to reality, just a scant five hours into his sleep.
He touched each of his children tenderly and gave them implicit instructions to wait in the car without marring the windows with their fingerprints. He would give them ample time to play at the racetrack later but he enjoyed taking them around in his gleaming navy blue DeSota that had been especially built to allow each dear boy and girl to have their own seat. There were no more fights about who would sit next to “My Daddy” (a name that they each claimed as though he belonged only to that particular child.) Each one had a special view. They all could reign like little Kings and Queens as the townspeople eagerly waved and reveled in the familiar sight of The Joy Boy with his brood.
Jacqueline insisted upon bringing along the baby and his wife was equally insistent that she could not take the baby. She was ferociously protective of her baby and B.T. averted her eyes as he plucked his little boy from her arms and handed him to his Princess. He felt sickened that he was responsible for bruising her face and wished he had not gone ballistic when she accused him of having an affair with the new barmaid who had phoned him twice, unnecessarily he had to admit. He promised to bring the baby back immediately after buying him a pair of shoes. Delores looked at him through razor sharpened eyes and gave her daughter a deluge of clipped instructions for the baby’s care. Jacqueline, wise beyond her years, promised to be the very best care giver and she looked at her mother with a very grown up look of compassion. She was an extremely beautiful and clever girl, well accustomed to the tasks of caring for her younger siblings, all of whom she loved with an astonishing tenderness.
B.T. drove slowly, and as he expected, neighbors waved vigorously from their porches. A few even ran down their front sidewalks and flagged down the car so they could have a firsthand look at the new baby. The neighborhood folk were well accustomed to seeing the older children walking to and from school but they seldom got a look at baby Tony as Delores kept to herself except for her friendship with the Rosemans and the Browns on either side of their uncommonly plain wood frame home with its modest wooden railing that boasted two large and lush lilac bushes in front that made the house more important looking than it actually was. The bushes had little rounded heads that spread neckless into full expansive shoulders that drooped generously over their bosoms and enormous lilac bellies and fluttered on windblown hips that seemed to sway in sync with the awesome derriere of Big Nell who would streak by the bushes in a flash to to see where B.T. was taking his brood . It looked like Nell was simulating her hips to encourage a comrade dance with her neighbor, our Mama, who loved to let down her full tiara crown of jet black hair and dance spontaneously, in the privacy of her home, with her eight children. When Nell shimmed past these rotund lilac bushes that shook out their scented fragrances our Mama, who thought Nell was hugely funny, put her hands on her hips – it was a practiced gesture to express her disapproval – and Mama briefly mimicked Big Nell’s lyrical movements, trying her best to camouflage the smile that was trying to break out across her face.
B.T. knew that his wife enjoyed Nell’s friendship and her standoffishness from most of the other neighbors was a form of self- protection, enabling her to avoid confronting the gossip that was in constant circulation about his goings on at his clubs and restaurant. He was sure, in fact, that she was secretive about all of her friendships because the police always arrived at their doorstep before their noisy confrontations had barely begun.
Big Nell came bounding down the street, past B.T.’s sparkling white pebbled drive-way and ran alongside the car, pressing her chubby fingers to the windows with great merriment. B.T. bristled with anger at her careless streaking of the windows, but he returned her greeting with his customary wave and, “Hi Ya Jelly Bean,” which brought Nell no offense. But Nell was clearly bent upon getting another point across because she yelled loudly, “The Lord doesn’t like ugly,” which forced B.T. to abandon his normal routine of just waving jovially and moving on. B.T. stopped abruptly and the rotund figure of Nell soon took up all of the window space on his side. “Not now Nell,” B.T. said through the unopened window, a coldness hardening the look of his jaw. He felt bad enough about the black eye he had given his wife earlier that morning but he was in no mood to hear Nell’s sermonizing. “Be careful, B.T. and be good to those children’s mother,” Nell admonished. Nell was a woman of uncommon good sense and extreme sensitivity but B.T. thought that no good could come of approaching the subject of Nell’s concern with all of the children present so after a few seconds of forcing himself to remain silent, he opened the window and spat out. All of the children said, “Ooh My Daddy, how could you? Ooh, gross.” It was a lousy habit of his, spitting, and he honestly couldn’t remember when he had started it. It was a kind of reflex action, B.T. thought. Smokers reached for a cigarette during an awkward moment and since he didn’t smoke, he spit instead. He also suspected that spitting had come from watching his mother chew tobacco. Though she was a demure, fastidious little lady she was known on occasion, when she was under stress, to chew a wad of the southern tobacco that was pressed into big flat bars wrapped like candy. She kept a pail nearby and she would chew and spit, chew and spit. Jacqueline was peering at B.T. cautiously, and he looked at Nell with irritation and jerked the car into drive. Just thinking briefly of his mother made B.T want to turn the car straight to her door, to the little brown shingled home he and his brothers and Poppa had bought for her. There was nothing about his mother he disliked, including her spewing out the brown juice into her tobacco pail.
Driving along, looking at the neat lawns being careful attended by their owners B.T. was able to recapture the vision of his mother sprinkling her beloved gardens in the front and backyards, dressed in her printed silk dress with a white starched apron, wearing perfectly polished lace up heels. High tops she called them. Perhaps he would see a pair of white ones for her at the store. Like his wife, his mother had an eye for quality goods.
As they pulled up to the entrance of the handsome and prestigious store on Main Street, onlookers crowded, some silent, some very noisy, around his unusual car and gaped shamelessly as he parked and maneuvered his well dressed menagerie of happy little faces into an obedient line - the youngest in front with him, and the eldest in back, all arranged chronologically as had long been previously orchestrated to assure maximum security and effect. Like a locomotive chief looking after his crew on a momentous occasion, he moved from shoulder to shoulder calling out their names. He chatted with each little person he routed safely through the revolving glass door. Little Mike, only two, but forever concerned about the wellbeing of his siblings, insisted on being allowed to pick out the baby’s shoes and asked sweetly, with a whisper, if he might have a pair of red sandals. Reginald, age three grumbled about Mike holding up the line and assured B.T. he would not wear any “sissy” sandals. He was “intensely alive” and had been fairly much in charge of dictating the sibling agenda since he had begun to walk. Bev, five, B.T.’s little “chocolate drop,” the rich smooth color of velvet brown gave a glowing shy smile as she glided through the door. Gail, six, and always fighting with one or the other, was B.T.’s “Angel Cake,” a name he had arrived at by hoping that she would become more sunny in her disposition. He loved her dearly though, because she had an angel’s face and a devil’s tongue which often made him weak with laughter. Bev came running back, her eyes lit up like Christmas lights, chattering about some black patent slippers, with a bow. So excited was she that she skipped along - the shyness literally falling away. Annette, seven, the ballerina of the family, was called "Edie Wedie" by her Daddy and she wore an anxious look. She was concerned about pink toe shoes and pressed her graceful hands into a prayerful clasp that she would find them. Of all the children, she loved beautiful things the most, and strangely, was the most forgiving when something she wanted could not be given to her.
Booker Jr., nine, remained with his ever present even tempered look, but kept his eyes cast down, the superfluous fanfare being something he could well live without. He was a quiet, studious boy who respected all of his family members. He had a passion for football, a sport that made the family nervous because Junior had suffered with rheumatic fever. But Junior conquered the illness and was determined to make his mark in football. Jacqueline, eleven, dressed in bouffant crinolines and luxurious long black braids, smiled proudly as she carried six month old Charles in her arms. She looked like a real princess as she moved with assurance through the ornate door. The sales people buzzed around them like a pack of mother bees and an enormous selection of shoes began appearing before the children were barely seated.
Boxes upon boxes of school shoes, play shoes, Sunday school shoes, slippers, were opened and tried on. For an hour B.T watched his eggheads rush about excitedly as they tried on pair after pair, laughing and whispering and pointing at each other happily in the mirror. Even the baby, by now contentedly crawling about on the thick carpeting, seemed to understand what the merriment was all about. Jacqueline tried on the tiniest heel in a gleaming black patent and almost imperceptibly B.T. nodded, allowing her to thoroughly enjoy the moment and exclaim, “perfect.” Annette found her beloved toe shoes and kept them close to her refusing to allow them to go back into the box. By the time all the selections were made and the children were each in their new shoes with the additional selections and old ones boxed up to go - there were thirty two boxes. Each had gotten four pairs, shoes for school, play, Sunday school, and of course slippers for padding about at home. The sales people had asserted that even the little boys needed the proper oxford to assure the healthy alignment of growing bones, bones that wouldn’t see the schoolyard for a few more years B.T. had unsuccessfully argued. Even the baby had gotten soft leather high tops in white, brown and patent leather, not to mention the slipper socks, of course. And yes, B.T. found the most supple while leather lace ups for his much loved mother, Josie.
Outwardly though he joked that he’d have to get right back to work as he alone was responsible for keeping the Buster Brown Shoe Company in business, inwardly B. T. was thrilled that he had sired such a fabulous family. He loved them and he wanted the best for them, and nothing but best. He tucked the bill inside his trousers. He would let the accountant worry about the damage he had done.B.T. marched his family outside and the sales staff loaded the car trunk and helped guide the
obedient brood into Robinson’s next door, a one stop, extremely expensive family clothing store. There they would each get two sets of trousers or skirts and shirts or coordinated tops. And all would get a Sunday school outfit and a winter coat.
The girls chose beautiful pleated skirts for school, and pastel, soft woolen sweaters with ruffled Peter Pan collars. In darker shades, they found lovely velvet dresses with long, graceful sleeves and demure ribbons around the wrists. Jacqueline looked handsome in the chic, understated velvet, dressed by choice like her sisters. The boys each got stylish plaid suits for Sunday school and rugged corduroy trousers for daytime wear. Little Mike was ecstatic about his red overcoat and did not want to take it off, though it was still a good four weeks away from any real cold weather. Booker Jr. wanted a bomber jacket, and in a rare display of enthusiasm gave his brothers and sisters a huge grin when an army green wool one was found. Only Annette could not find a Sunday dress, and as expected she could not be persuaded into taking something like her sisters. She was happy to do without she said, amicably.
The packages were wrapped and just as they were about to leave, the owner hurriedly exited and reappeared with a delicate lace blouse that had a velvet sleeveless vest attached. Little gold nail heads were sprinkled along the border of the muted, plaid vest and were elaborately repeated throughout the enormous, circular skirt. Annette gasped when she learned it was her size, and needless to say the toe shoes had just found an outfit ready and willing to be danced in.
It was a very happy group that arrived at the car with their mountainous assortment of parcels in tow. With the packing and arranging at last complete, and little room left for the actual children, B.T.’s DeSota headed north for his restaurant, just a few blocks away.
The street was crowded with cars and B.T. was annoyed that his spot in the front of his restaurant was occupied by someone else. Slim and Kenny D were not in sight and he had little choice but to let the kids out and double park until “those ruffians” as he wife called them, could be found to watch the car. He paid top dollar to keep from being aggravated with petty nuisances and he was angry that his men were not at their posts. As B.T.'s eggheads climbed the long staircase to his Grill, B.T. hopped in and out of adjacent businesses looking for his guards. Finally, he pulled into a spot not far away and hurried up to the restaurant to get the meal underway.
It was a cozy restaurant, seating sixty, and the children, well familiar with the surroundings, had placed themselves near the kitchen at four different tables. It was not often that they got away from one another and confidants quickly revealed themselves. Jacqueline had already gotten the cook to give them coca colas and she was engrossed in giving the baby his bottle. Big Benny had wisely taken their orders and hamburgers, French fries, and big slices of his mother’s famous lemon meringue pie were already being placed on the counter. Benny was a tall, fat, gay man weighing some three hundred pounds, and was a powerhouse of energy. He could cook better than any cook he had ever had, and was a better waiter than any six put together, but Benny had bouts with depression that would incapacitate him now and then and he would miss a day or two of work. When this happened, the entire operation was thrown into a state of havoc. Everyone on the block would be on the lookout for Big Ben, knowing that a generous reward could be had if Benny’s whereabouts were divulged. Benny could almost always be coaxed into coming back, and B.T. had been known to send in his “eggheads” to bolster Benny’s sagging ego. Benny was a kind man who had been born without too many pluses and B.T. tried hard to return the loyalty that Benny had shown him. Already Benny had whisked the food to the various tables and he knew that Benny delighted in pleasing the children and was nonplussed about having four tables to redo.
Slim came running in, saying he needed the keys to park the car in its rightful place. B.T. exploded, like a bag of firecrackers, demanding his whereabouts. Slim was dumbfounded. “Nobody would steal your car, he said, and there isn’t anything in it to worry about.” B.T. bounded down the steps, half believing that Slim was talking jive. It was a solemn moment. The car stood there as before but there was not a package to be seen anywhere. He opened the trunk. It, too, was empty. The car did not appear to be tampered with. It was astounding, numbing. Everything in B.T.’s field of vision seem to disappear. He felt weak. Sick. Big Benny, Slim, and the children were now at his side. The street began to thicken with the curious as the story began to unfold. It seemed as though Slim had really just returned, and knew of no packages. The packages had been removed carefully, and without suspicion, by a man and woman, who had put them into a station wagon.
Jacqueline, Junior and Gail began to cry. They seemed to understand that everything was gone, taken by strangers. Bev wanted to know when they were going to bring back her slippers, and Annette seemed so distraught that she looked like she might perish. She had left her pink toe shoes on her seat.
The police came and they tried to help B.T. put the pieces of the puzzle together, to really focus on what facts they could gather from the neighborhood crowd. The man and woman had been seen in the area before, but no one really knew them, or would say that they knew them. It was even harder to pin down who actually had seen B.T. and all of his children go up to the Grill, and why no one had come up to say that his car was being unloaded. Dozens of times in the past, residents and other business owners had reported the slightest odd occurrence to him.
The police seemed to think that the couple had been so efficient and casual about the entire matter, that it appeared to others that they were simply doing what they were supposed to be doing. Of one thing B.T. was certain – that if it was more than just a casual robbery, the thieves would get their just do. If one of his enemies, and he had a few, had set out to harm his family – he would make them pay, and pay good. It wasn’t an idle threat. All that knew him knew that B.T. was well connected with the judges and City officials and that he believed in more than one way to skin a cat. B. T. was furious with Slim, but he knew that he was innocent. In his gut, he felt that it was a neighborhood theft, executed by people who had begun their lives in those few meager blocks and would certainly end them there, unable to escape the shackles that held fast to their dreams. For a few moments, the newness of leather and the tuck of pleats would bound them and make them forget their own hopelessness.
But B.T. wanted to make someone pay for his children’s pain. But who? Most of the people in that neighborhood were scarcely able to turn themselves out for their daily ritual of standing on the street corner to watch others have what they could never have. The money and the good times belonged to the outsiders who breezed in with their fine cars and fat wallets to have a meal and take in the entertainment. It would take decades before anything in the neighborhood belonged to the neighborhood folk.
As B.T. drove his woe-begotten crew home, he felt diminished, as though he were not in control of his own destiny. He made the effort of uttering words of comfort to his brood, but the truth was even he didn’t believe in his words. His children’s happiness had turned into pain and for the moment he was powerless to change it.
With great hardship, B.T. turned into their drive and got the children out of the car and into the house. Delores rushed toward them, hugging each sorrowful face - but looking herself like a wounded animal. Through the mirror, B.T. could see that his wife's eye was hidden under a purple lump and the whole lamentable scene so dragged him that he rushed back to his car, feeling absolutely deformed. He squinted away his tears, seated himself abruptly and drove off -leaving the pebbled driveway spurting with dust balls. Numbed to his core, he just drove on through traffic and stop lights and streets that he knew like the back of his hand but seemed now as if they had been coated with foggy egg whites, a haze meant to obliterate his memory. Indeed, he had been transformed into a robot who turned and stopped and signaled, but who felt nothing.......This story is a part of Edie's new published book, "The Joy Boy's Daughter."
The Joy Boy's "Egg Heads"