Thursday, October 11, 2012

Big Ugly Moose

Big Ugly Moose
             I left Atlanta after my father died of influenza, and my mother married Dr. Campbell. He got offered a position at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Ottawa, and claimed, "There's no room for the boy there, Carolyn. And with our baby coming..."
           "What’ll I do with him, Leslie? Put him in a military academy?"
           I held my breath. Mother was in love and would have done anything for Dr. Campbell. I suspected he hated me because I was constant reminder his pretty wife had been with another man.
           "You have family—save the expense for the boy’s education down the road. Maybe law. Maybe the clergy."
           Three days later I was waiting at the Danville Depot for Barbara Boyle—Aunt Babbie, who’d raised two brothers and two sisters, and buried three husbands.
           I was always Child to her, as in, "Land sakes, Child, I‘d know you anywhere. Look just like your father." It was Boy when she was angry, as in, "Get in here, Boy, before I set the hounds on you.” And it was, "my sister's son" when she was talking about me. But on July 3rd, 1920, when I was 11, I became Lawrence thanks to Mrs. Henrietta Grant.
           The Grants moved next door to us on a sticky August Mississippi day. Me and Mark Ritter watched shirtless men carry their furniture into the Smith’s vacant house, while we munched apples in the shade of  Aunt Babbie’s elm tree. "What the hell is that?" Mark said. He always cursed when we were alone.
           "It's a moose head," I said.
           "Why the hell would anybody want with a big old stuffed moose head in their house?"
           "Decoration, I reckon”
           “Ugly as hell,” Mark said, and wandered off. He should've stayed till the trucks were gone. He would have seen Mr. Grant kiss Mrs. Grant and carry her through the front door.
           “It's what newlyweds do, Child," Aunt Babbie told me at dinner.
           “They have a big roundtable and a moose head," I told her.
           "He's a haberdasher."
           “We got a haberdasher church in Danville?" I said.
           Aunt Babbie laughed. “He sells men's clothing, Child, Gentlemen’s things. Henrietta said he might need somebody to sweep up before closing. You could earn yourself some movie money, if you had a mind to take the job." I wrote my mother right off to let her know I was earning  my keep. In a month, I was taking orders for underwear, and taking tailoring notes as Mr. Grant measured his customers for suits, as well as dusting shelves and sweeping floors.
           “I need you to run this package over to Mrs. Grant," Mr. Grant told me one afternoon. “She’s been waitin’ on it. Mind you, knock hard. She may be upstairs or down in the cellar.”
           I didn't know what was in the package, but I hightailed it over to the Grant house, banged on the door, good and loud, and handed over the merchandise that’d come all the way from Charlottesville, North Carolina. I'd never seen Mrs. Grant up close, never talk to her either because the Grants weren’t Baptists. They weren’t anything, except haberdashers. Mark said his parents said Pastor Timothy said they were godless folks—not Catholics or Jews or anything like that—but as long as they obeyed the law and didn't cheat anybody, we should be nice to them.
           Yet, when Henrietta Grant opened the door, I couldn't keep myself from staring. She was taller than any woman I'd ever seen, and not pretty like the women in the fashion magazines. Mr. Grant was thinkin’ about makin’ a department store out of his shop. Expandin’ the trade, he called it.
   “Thank you, Lawrence is it?” I nodded a yes, and she gave me a dime and closed the door. I should've left right then, but I’d run so fast in the heat, I decided I'd get me a lemonade from my house as soon as I deposited the dime in my bank. I went upstairs, and from my bedroom window, I saw into Henrietta’s bedroom.  She unwrapped the package and held up a blue flower print dress, a pair of ladies panties, a woman's corset, and a slip.
           I've never seen women's underthings, except for Aunt Babbie’s  bleached white bloomers and petticoats. Henrietta's underwear was pink and soft. I could tell because she held the garments next to her cheek and fondled them with her fingertips. Then she started undressing. I knew I should look away, but I was like one of those elders in the Bible who peeped at Susanna. Fascinated. Hypnotized. I’d never seen a naked woman before. Mark said they had considerable charms, but wouldn’t say what those charms were. I crept over to the window and knelt down, and peeked between the curtain and the window sash. I knew she was gonn’a bare her charms.
           When I got back to the store, Mr. Grant called me back the store room. Maybe because I was late gettin’ back to the store, or maybe because I was as white as bleached bloomers—maybe that’s how Mr. Grant knew that I knew his Henrietta was a man. “Lawrence," he said, "Danville's a really nice place. We’re really happy here. It's difficult to know people don't want you, to hear hateful things said to you or someone you love. It’d be hard for us to move again.”
           Especially that big ugly moose head, I remember thinking. But I knew he’d take it with him wherever he went.  
           The next day, at the July 4th celebration, Mark asked me where the Grants had put the big stuffed head. We were sitting on the high school bleachers, waiting the fireworks, sitting with the rest of our neighbors, when the Grants walked by. Mr. Grant had his arm around Henrietta and they each had a lemonade icy in a paper cone. She was wearing her blue flowered dress and a straw hat that’d come all the way from Philadelphia.  People called out to them, "Hi Henrietta. How's it going, Gus?”
           “Hi, Mrs. Boyle. Hi, Lawrence...” she called back. I never told Gus I wouldn’t tell. Some things men just understand.
           Mr. Grant followed her up to the top tier. “It’s in the parlor above the fireplace. Mr. Grant shot it when they lived in Wisconsin,” I said.
           “Does it look ugly?” Mark said.
           “Naw. Makes the house look like one of them old-timey lodges you see in National Geographic. I’m goin’ to Wisconsin someday.”
           “See me a moose. Maybe get over to Ottawa ‘for I settle down to haberdasherin’.” 


Jenean McBrearty