Granddaddy asked me to help him tend to one of the bee hives he kept in the backyard out by grandmama’s overflowing flower garden full of everything from azaleas to zinnias, what must have been at least a dozen varieties of roses, and her favorite blossoms known as yellow bells, shaped more like little trumpets. She called them esperanza I think. I enjoyed inhaling the delightfully complex fragrance from all those flowers, the scents mingling like the smells from an oven full of pastries in a bake shop. The birds and the butterflies loved that garden as much as the bees.
I stood back a ways so I didn’t get stung, and didn’t help much either, just watched the bees, the birds, and the butterflies frolic in the air. Granddaddy laid down smoke to calm the bees before he performed some maintenance work on the white louvered box that housed the hive. The bees trusted him so he didn’t wear any protective clothing as he handled the hive, and communicated with them in his comforting, worn boot leather smooth voice. He also talked to me while he did his bee whispering thing. Nearly fifty years later as I write this story, I realize that he was bee whispering to me too, encouraging me to just…be.
“Rather than beatin’ around the bush, I’m gonna give it to you straight,” granddaddy said. “Your mama asked me to talk to you about the birds and the bees, since your daddy never got around to it. Is that okay with you?”
“Is this really necessary? I mean, it’s 1967. Things are different nowadays than they were when you were growing up granddaddy.”
“Some things don’t change that much. May I proceed?”
“They’ve found ancient cave paintin’s dating back 15,000 years showin’ man collectin’ honey from the wild bees. We know man has been domesticatin’ bees since at least the time of the pharaohs in Egypt because they found large earthen jars of honey in King Tut’s tomb, and elaborate drawin’s of beekeepin’ on the walls of his burial chamber.”
“That’s even older than you, huh, granddaddy?” I asked. He shot me a sideways stank eye stare and kept on rolling.
“An average hive has maybe 40,000 female worker bees, hundreds of male drones for matin’, and only one queen bee who lays maybe 2,000 eggs a day, and pro’bly half a million eggs over the course of her lifetime, a real procreatin’ dynamo. When she’s in the mood for love, the adult virgin queen bee takes a courtin’ flight to choose from among dozens of the best potential drones as her suitor. The winner doesn’t get to enjoy the matrimonial chamber for too long though ‘cause after he’s done the delightful deed, his pecker snaps off in the queen bee’s hoo ha to prevent any of the other fellas in the neighborhood from slippin’ off into the woods with the object of his affection.”
“That seems kind of drastic.”
“Ah, the sacrifices we make for love, but still, kind of a strange set up as compared to your average human beings, and our typical romantic arrangements, such as they are,” granddaddy said as he backed away from the bee hive after he’d finished the maintenance work, and seated himself in a white wicker arm chair near the garden. He motioned for me to take the chair next to him.
“What about the birds?”
“Birds aren’t much help either in terms of figurin’ out this whole man and a woman thing. Many birds are monogamous, some mate for life like geese and swans. Ducks will screw anythin’ that moves. You’ve got horny tail chasin’ red-winged blackbirds that have multiple female partners, and floozy female sandpipers down by the ocean who’re careless with their charms, and shack up with every Tom, Dick, and Harry flyin’ beach bum bird they can find. The main thing to remember about birds, and people too for that matter, is there’s a world of difference between woodpeckers and peckerwoods.”
“Well, thanks for the talk,” I said as I stood up to leave.
“We’re not done yet.” Just when you think a conversation can’t get any weirder, that’s exactly what happened. Granddaddy coughed and cleared his throat as he prepared to take our little man to man chat to the next level. “A teenage boy, a young man, has a lot of energies that build up over time, and need to be released pretty regularly. What I’m trying to say is, at your age, you should be chokin’ the chicken fairly often.”
“You know, chokin’ the chicken, floggin’ the throbbin’ noggin’, yankin’ your crank, buffin’ the banana, tootin’ your own horn, charmin’ the one-eyed snake, goin’ fishing with your zipper trout, polishin’ the family jewels.” Granddaddy became exasperated with me because he thought I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He finally yelled at me in a much louder voice erupting with a seismic sense of urgency as he hollered, “Jackin’ off!”
“Geezus, granddaddy!” I understood what he said, but I was in shock. I whipped around hoping grandmama wasn’t standing right behind me. She wasn’t, thank God.
“Well, boys your age hear all kinds of crazy shit, ‘bout how beatin’ your meat will make you go blind, and such foolishness as that. Not only is it not bad for you, it’s good for you. It’s a perfectly natural, normal thing to do. I don’t mean to embarrass you, but somebody has to talk to you about this stuff, what with your daddy bein’ gone and all. Anyway, I put my June copy of Playboy magazine in the drawer of the nightstand next to your bed. There’s a great layout in the back about sex in the movies that features one of Texas’ finest exotic dancers, Miss Candy Barr. I saw that tasty little treat strip one time at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club up in Dallas.”
“Doesn’t that kinda thing bother grandmama, girly magazines and strip clubs?”
“Son, your grandmother is an enlightened woman. She doesn’t give a hoot nor a holler about where I get my appetite…as long as I eat supper at home.”
“I guess that’s it then,” I said as I tried to leave again, but no such luck, not yet.
“The relationship between a man and a woman isn’t any different than anythin’ else in life. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. There aren’t but two decisions in life that really matter Billy. Who you marry and partner up with in life, and who you partner up with in business. My first serious business was a Pontiac dealership with my good friend Chester Cheatham. We called it Lide and Cheatham Pontiac.”
“People chuckled about it, but we prided ourselves on honesty. There were a whole lot of folks around here who would only buy their automobiles from us because we treated ‘em right. That’s all I’ve got to say on the subject. Find yourself a good woman, and treat her right. Other than that, if by some miracle you do come to understand women, or even just one woman, then maybe you’d be so kind as to explain the by God mystery known as woman to the rest of us. Are we good on this subject?”
“Yes, sir. Is there anything else?”
“As a matter of fact, there is. Your mama also wanted me to talk to you about your cussin’. Now personally, I believe there are times in life when only a curse word will do in terms of expressin’ yourself. That said, if you over use and abuse curse words, then they lose their power and effectiveness. A standup comic named Lenny Bruce got arrested, and convicted, on obscenity charges for saying eight words. If my memory can be trusted, in alphabetical order they are: balls, cocksucker, fuck, motherfucker, penis, pussy, shit, and tits. Those words, or variations thereof, are the biggies. As long as you don’t say those words as part of a nightclub act, you ought to be okay. Do you understand those words?”
“I think so.”
“Good, well let me know if you wanna discuss ‘em in depth. The short conversation is this. I have a penis and balls, and I’m literally a motherfucker, or if you wanna get real technical about it, I’m a grandmotherfucker. Your grandmama has a pussy and tits. Even at our age, we still like to fuck, and that’s no shit. Which brings us down, finally, to the word cocksucker. Please note, two of the three vowels in the word cocksucker are o and u. I’m a Texas Longhorn, so I’m deeply prejudiced in this matter. I’ll confess that right up front, but, said disclaimer having been noted, everybody in this part of the country calls Oklahoma University, OU. So how is it you can’t spell COCKSUCKER without OU?” Granddaddy kicked back in his wicker chair with a self-satisfied grin like he’d just delivered the fuckin’ Gettysburg Address of cussin’.
Thirty seconds later, without so much as another word, granddaddy stood up and walked off toward the house, more of a strut truth be told, leaving me to absorb his words of wisdom and try to integrate them into the way I looked at things, which I was figuring right at about that very moment, would take me approximately the rest of my life.
Reverend Jimmy Sunday made his way along Chaparral Street in Corpus Christi tacking his revival posters up on the telephone poles. He kept a Camel cigarette burning in the corner of his mouth while he worked, squinting his eyes sometimes from the smoke. When he approached the intersection of Antelope Street and Chaparral he caught sight of it, the American Opinion Bookstore. A simple storefront like most of the other mom and pop shops in that part of town, the window display offered mostly books and pamphlets promoting the John Birch Society. As Jimmy opened the door to go inside, the tinkling of a bell announced his arrival. A sharp looking college man in his late teens dressed in a dark brown suit and tie, accented only by a light brown shirt, walked briskly toward him.
“Thanks for coming in for a visit, neighbor. My name’s Carl Herren, what’s yours?”
“Reverend Jimmy Sunday. We’re holding a revival this weekend on the pier, actually, every Sunday for the next couple of months. We’d love to have you join us,” Jimmy said as he handed Carl a revival poster.
“Papa Hugo believes two documents should be strictly interpreted, the Bible, and the Constitution of the United States. What do you believe?”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Well then, let’s place this poster of yours in the front window where more right thinking people can avail themselves of it.”
“John Birch. I’ve heard the name but…”
“A true American hero, an apostle sent to bring salvation to the heathen Chinese by the World Fundamental Missionary Baptist Fellowship Church of Fort Worth, Texas,” Carl said as he moved toward some photographs on the wall and beckoned Jimmy to follow him. Carl pointed to a picture of a young man immaculately clothed from head to toe in a white suit and white shoes, protected from the sun by only a white pith helmet.
“I didn’t know that.”
“After the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, John Birch enlisted and became a Captain in the United States Air Force. One of the Flying Tigers signing up to fight the Nips who controlled most of China by then. John Birch undertook dozens of dangerous missions, on foot, and behind enemy lines, to guide American planes to their targets, helping our allies at the time, the Chinese Communists.” Then Carl pointed to a photo of a flag-draped coffin.
“What happened to him?”
“Japan surrendered to the Chinese Communists in 1945, and the commies turned against us. Within days of the surrender, our soldiers found the mutilated body of John Birch. We believe he was a true hero. The first American hero killed by the Chinese Communists.”
The bell rang again as Carl and Jimmy turned toward the front door, where stood a massive man in a hand-tailored white seersucker summer suit with light blue stripes and a wide-brimmed tan straw Stetson. The man suffered from a slight limp, so he leaned on a solid gold Fritz-handled walking cane with a black beechwood shaft. Carl moved toward the door to greet his father and said, “Papa Hugo, please meet our new friend, Jimmy Sunday. He’s…”
“Yes, yes I know, preaching on the pier, Reverend Jimmy Sunday, the Miracle Man. Who the hell do you think had the mayor approve that?” Jimmy followed behind Carl and reached out his hand. Papa Hugo glared at Jimmy, sizing him up for a few intimidating moments, and then finally, shook his hand.
“I guess I have you to thank for my new pulpit.”
“I’ve been told you give the commies holy hell in your sermons. Is that true?”
“Yes, sir. Bad actors, who wanna replace God with government.”
“It’s not just the commies. Our problems go much deeper than that, young man. We never should have given women the vote, much less the mongrel races. The weak minded don’t make rational decisions. I’m all for one man, one vote, but that one man should be propertied and white. Then we would elect right minded representatives, senators, and even a right minded president. Shit, this so called Civil Rights Movement is nothing more than a communist front, an uncivil attempt to destabilize our capitalist way of life.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more, sir,” Jimmy said. But then again, at that moment in time, Jimmy would have agreed with Papa Hugo if he’d have put forth the opinion that the moon was made of green cheese, and professed said same opinion while standing on a flat earth.
“Damnit, we have no need for governments. Free markets should rule. In a perfect world, there would be no governments, only corporations and their employees.”
“I pray you come by to hear my sermon on Sunday, sir. We’ll show you some real miracles, and hope you think highly of us.”
“Doesn’t matter if the miracles are real or not, as long as the sheep believe they’re real. The flock needs to be herded by the shepherd.”
“The people who attend my revivals think…”
“What you tell ‘em to think. Your job is to help control the great unwashed masses. Make ‘em believe there’s a better world waiting for ‘em in the next life, so they go to work every day in this life. Encourage ‘em to get married and take out a mortgage. Cash their paychecks on Friday. Go to a ball game Saturday afternoon. Drink a beer Saturday night. Get forgiven and blessed on Sunday, so they can punch the timeclock and go back to work on Monday morning.” Papa Hugo tapped Jimmy on the foot with his cane as he said, “Do the right thing on Sunday, young man, or I’ll kick your Bible thumping butt off the end of that pier. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
Back in Pair O’ Dice at the Old Gates Home, granddaddy chewed the fat with his stepson Pharr Brenham in the front yard out near Shoreline Drive where he parked his truck. At eighteen, grandmama married a handsome swaggering blustery free swinging dick sort of a guy from Victoria, Texas named Lamar Brenham, who turned out to be a whole lot more hat than cattle, and she bore him a son shortly thereafter. The story was that one time Lamar, who inherited a ripe fondness for the drink, but no money to speak of from his daddy, toodled off on a three day bender and roughed her up a little bit. Grandmama said about Lamar, “He only hit me twice, the first time…and the last time,” so she divorced the big talking windbag.
Pharr and granddaddy glanced over toward the front porch where Jessup painted the rocking chairs the same sky blue color to match the shutters and gutters, and I endeavored to some extent to help him.
“Mary Jane wants us to have the birds and bees talk with Billy,” granddaddy said to Pharr. “Between me and you and your two boys, she hopes we’ll be able to give him some pointers on the complex nature of relationships between a man and a woman. I already gave it my best shot, but I don’t know if I was any help or not. I pro’bly confused the boy more than anythin’ else.”
“Oh hell, Earl, I’m a by God expert. I been married four times, and divorced three. I can tell that boy a thing or two about bird shit and bee stings. Who’s the new help?” Pharr asked as he winced at the thought of his tragic trifecta of divorces. Losing a bet at the racetrack of romance has never been easy, expeditious, or inexpensive.
“Say, wasn’t there a hot shot quarterback by that name out of Longview a few years back?” Pharr asked as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other to adjust his balls.
“Yeah, but he came from Palestine. Real good too, some folks said he was going to be the resurrection of Bobby Layne.”
“Bobby Layne, there’s a boy who’s bad to drink. Sumbitch spends most of his time so high he could go duck huntin’ with a rake. If he’s another Bobby Layne, you better padlock your liquor cabinet. This Jessup, he’s into that long hair peace and love hippie crap is he?”
“You don’t believe in peace and love, Pharr?”
“I believe I got me some hay that’s gonna get wet if I don’t put it in the barn, jack rabbit quick,” Pharr said with his usual breathless air of certainty and abruptness. Pharr managed the nine hundred acre Gates Ranch, located about five miles west of Pair O’ Dice, down along the banks of the Aransas River.
Pharr dressed in his customary starched khaki shirt and even more thoroughly starched khaki pants. The root word, khak, comes to us from the Persian language by way of the British army, and their faded colonial empire adventures in India. Politics and profits have always been intriguingly intertwined. Khak means soil, and more especially, soil colored. Pharr aspired to be known as a man of the soil, at one with the soil, the very ethos pathos logos of soilos, filthy rich of course, but with a dirt poor demeanor at the same time.
Down through the annals of time, those kinky khaki color mavens who conjure up such things must have created at least fifty shades of khaki. In his wild robust young manliness Pharr lusted after them all. For a period in his early adulthood Pharr flirted with the pewter shades of khaki, embarked on a scandalous fling with the dark drab army green shades of khaki, and he even entertained a brief dalliance with the British shades of khaki. In his fashionably settled mature years, he became a faithful, monogamously attired man armored in only what he deemed to be the truest American shade of khaki, the khakiest of khakis. Pharr cast a worried stare up at the cloudy sky drenched in a gun metal shade of khaki, and worried about getting his hay into the barn before it rained.
“Shit, I’m late. I’ve got to go meet Lyndon at the Corpus airport,” granddaddy said as he took a quick peek down at his watch.
“I didn’t hear anything about the President comin’ to town.”
“It’s not an official visit. He just wants to talk.”
“Shit fire, Earl, it ain’t none of my bidnes anyway. I ain’t much for hob nobbin’ and politickin’ like you are.” Pharr gathered himself up in his copious khakiness and strode briskly toward his pickup truck as he said back over his shoulder, “Tell Billy and Jessup I need all the help I can get tomorrow with my hay. I’m payin’ ten cents a bale.”
At lunch time later that day, Jessup and I parked ourselves at the kitchen table eating a tuna fish sandwich served on Wonder Bread with Blue Plate Mayonnaise and sliced dill pickles so sour they’d pucker up your mouth against its better judgement. You knew Wonder Bread, the first commercially produced sliced bread in America dating way back to 1930, had to be good stuff because everybody kept comparing it to new things they liked by saying, “That’s the best thing since sliced bread.”
That’s when granddaddy and his old amigo, the 36th President of these here United States of America, one Lyndon Baines Johnson his own by God self, came tromping into the room, looking a little bit like Chill Wills with a giant hangover.
The preceding passage was provided by the Pair O’ Dice Birdwatchers and Beekeepers Association, accompanied with a cheerful chirp and a busy buzz, and includes an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Four in The Gates of Pair O’ Dice.