The view from the hospital window is of the old neighborhood, experiencing the past as present. Rooftops and trees along Bernardo Street two short blocks away. Where it intersects on the south with Florida Boulevard its lane-like narrowness is apparent. Ten houses squeezed along its length and there's North Street and beyond that Roselawn Cemetery. There are whispered lies long ago of ruthless blacks digging up new graves for valuable rings, but strolling through the headstones forty years ago, reading inscriptions and calculating the time between the chiseled dates, there is rarely fresh dirt, just weeds and plastic flowers bleached white by the sun.
The house on Bernardo is still there in memory. Where I grow up. Where, later, Dee and I raise our daughters. Although now among oaks on a few acres 17 miles east in Walker, Louisiana, moved years ago after my father died, the house still resides a short distance from the hospital, a simple frame design built in 1941 by my father and his father, Papa Cothern. Two bedrooms, front and back porches, kitchen, living room, one bathroom. The table in the kitchen is there also, in that phantom house on Bernardo, a reminder of a time when family and food are still linked, when meals are markers of everydayness; chrome, tubular legs, formica top, 1950's to the max, the surface of the table bears its history in nicks and mars and scars from countless gatherings: field peas and okra and tomatoes and corn and butterbeans and summer squash and hot dishes of black-eyed peas that slip off the crocheted table pads and darken the polished surface, boiled crabs, platters of fried chicken and bream and bass and rabbit and squirrel and crawfish tails, bowls of strawberries and milk from Louisiana Creamery left on the doorstep before dawn, lemon and egg and coconut and apple and cherry pies.
But there is other food as well, different: fried squirrel heads cracked with a tablespoon, tiny white brains scooped out. sardine sandwiches on mustard bread, butter and sugar sandwiches, fried Spam sandwiches loaded with mayonaise, Vienna sausages and its petroleum-like gelatine.
And then there are the holdiays as land mines.
The entire pot of soupy cornbread dressing before stuffing the turkey sitting on the table, father, three sheets to the seasonal wind, taking it, feeding it to the dogs, saying, Well, Goddamn, that son'bitching squirrel dog dove straight into that stuff.
On the 4th of July, folded towels on the kitchen table under buckets of homemade ice-cream and fireworks in the backyard, the lighted punks like fireflies in the evening air; the holiday turkey and ducks and hams and enough pitchers of ice tea and lemonade to dot the table like sentinels; more food at Christmas and, glancing from the kitchen into the small living room, presents spilling downward on both sides of the tree in an avalanche of foil wrap and curly ribbons of green and red and gold, carols of goodwill and sentimental journeys trumpeting from WWL in New Orleans while my parents argue silently with each other through the doorway, my mother in the kitchen, frowning, getting back a disapproving tilt of the head from my father in the living room, his recliner upright, the air of seasonal generosity around them electrically charged with potential arguments like explosive coal dust in a mine or chaff in a silo.
Once, long ago and late at night, peering into the kitchen from another doorway, brother Wayne's head above mine, one eye each to the crack in the bedroom door, mouths rounded in astonishment, father smashing every plate, saucer, cup, whatever, in a raging windmill approach, jagged pieces of china like the broken oyster shells of the driveway covering the floor entirely, surrounding table and chair legs and the soles of mother's shoes. The image remains, not what is being shouted by father or the placating words from mother, but the sight of her hands, open, palms toward him, an image not of exposed silver grains on paper stored in the brown suitcase with other photographs, but one of memory, not subject to yellowing or the septia wash of time.
(Chapter One to be continued.)