Dreams are a subset of lies, the way the unconscious mind works to make it possible for us to keep living with ourselves. Or so psychologists tell us with certitude, that assurance a lie in itself. Lies and the truth are close kin, though, particularly in Deep East Texas, and a recent dream brought that truth home to me like an old wound re-opened.
The dream was about my cousin, Winston, a relative I hadn’t thought about in years. I woke from it in the way you do when you’re trying to escape a nightmare, a situation so disturbingly real your mind tells you to find a way to leave it as soon as possible. It’s only a dream, you want to say. I’m not here. I’m in my bed asleep, and if I try hard enough I’ll be conscious again in a place where I’m not dreaming.
I jerked awake, in a cool room with covers over me and my wife asleep beside me, and I waited for the calm of reality to reassure that all was well, no matter what my unconscious mind was telling me. The after effects of the dream lasted, though, much longer than ordinary, and even after I’d gone back to sleep, something worked inside to remind me of where I had been and how badly I had wanted to leave that place.
In the dream, Winston and I were in possession of a stolen car, a luxury auto of great solidity – massive, sleek and dark in color -, and we were in a parking garage planning how we’d convert what we had into cash. My cousin had stolen the car, but I had arranged the theft and now I was terribly afraid I’d be found out. In the dream I was conscious of being myself in my current situation in life, a dean of a college with a reputation and social status to protect. A black man was there in the garage, colluding with us in this criminal act. He had jerri curls, a ruined face, and he reeked of danger.
Winston was himself as I had last seen him, a day over twenty years ago when he had come to my father’s funeral in East Texas in a cemetery named Menard Chapel where members of the Duff family have been buried for generations, all the way back to the first family member in Texas, Winston’s and my great-grandfather who had come to the state from Louisiana after his participation in the Civil War. He had become a Baptist preacher after the war, he founded the church at Menard Chapel, and he spawned all the Duff family to come.
Winston and I were the only sons of two brothers of the clan. I was four or five years older than Winston, and my first memory of him is as a child in my family’s house in Nederland. He had been left for my mother to look after, and he had a cold so severe that snot was running down his face as he stood in our living room, looking up at me, his older cousin, and trying to snuffle stuff back into his head.
“Look at Winston,” I said to my mother. “Fix him. He’s all messed up.”
She tended to that, and I left the room, not wanting to be around somebody who looked like him, who was so repulsive and who wanted to follow me around in such a leaking condition.
Our family moved a lot, from one rent house to another in whatever location in the petro-chemical area of the Texas Gulf Coast Big Willie Duff could find work, and Winston’s family was worse in that respect than we were. My sightings of Joseph Winston Duff were scattered and infrequent, but always memorable, due largely to the fact that his father Lewis was a notorious drunk, liable to show up at any time of the day or night at the homes of his brothers and sisters in search of somewhere to lay his head and particularly to look for something to drink. Often he had Winston with him.
Uncle Lewis’s only son was the fifth child born in the family, and his arrival was so momentous to Uncle Lewis – a boy at last, after the succession of daughters Emily, Betty, Doris, and Nola Mae – that he was given a special name. It wasn’t until I was well along in my education that I realized why my cousin was named Joseph Winston, and I was amazed to recognize the source of his given names. He was born during one of the monumental diplomatic meetings of the Allies during World War II, and the names chosen by his father came from those of Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill in light of their gathering with FDR in Yalta to divide up the Western world on the verge of the Allied victory in Europe.
Winston’s naming was Faulknerian, I came to realize, akin to the sardonic name slapped on the character Wall Street Panic Snopes by the novelist in one of his lesser books, and its choice reflected not thought, but a desire by an ignorant parent to lend an infant significance by labeling the child after a stray element in the Zeitgeist. It would have been embarrassingly laughable to anyone with a semblance of education and awareness, but that fact did not apply in the case of Lewis Calvin Duff, father of Joseph Winston. The names he chose for his only son sounded important, even august, I imagine, to him, and he intended by the naming of his son to bestow a mark of respect and an homage to greatness by the act.
Joseph Winston had been singled out, and he had the label to prove it. He didn’t realize that fact, but those in the social classes above him could be mildly entertained by what he was called, if they happened to notice it. That amusement of his betters would be an expression of contempt for him and his kind, but he was not likely ever to know that.
I was around Winston, off and on, until my family made its move from the Gulf Coast to the pine barrens of Polk County after my father lost his job with the Sun Oil Company and retreated to his home ground to sulk and plot vengeance. It wasn’t until after we returned to the Golden Triangle, so-called, eight or nine years later, that I saw Winston for more than a couple of hours at a time.
My family, brought low by my father’s inability to find regular work at a living wage, came back to Nederland so that my father could seek employment in a place that had jobs, and we stayed for a couple of weeks with Uncle Lewis and Aunt Myrtie and their children still at home. Those were Virginia Anne and Winston. Ginny Anne was a child still, but Winston had grown into a rangy, wide-shouldered youth, hungry for a different kind of food, real and metaphorical.
“Winston,” I said to him soon after we’d moved in, “will your daddy let us use his lawn mower to go around and ask folks if we can cut their grass and make us some money?”
“I don’t see why not,” my cousin said. “He ain’t going to be using it.”
We took off every morning then with a gas can and the beat-up rotary mower, walking the streets of Nederland, Texas, and looking for unmowed yards. Sure enough, we found a few people, old ladies living alone mainly with a few younger ones with husbands who either didn’t own a mower or wouldn’t use it, willing to hire us to mow their weedy San Augustine grass-filled yards. Our most likely takers, we soon learned, were on the low end of the economic scale in Nederland, and they didn’t want to pay much.
The nicer looking yards belonged to people who gave us hard looks and short answers, no matter how badly their grass needed cutting, and we quickly learned to judge our low likelihood of success with this class of people and to keep moving when we saw signs of affluence. A nice car parked in the driveway, matching curtains in the windows, houses neatly painted, well-dressed children, women whose hair showed signs of having been messed with in beauty parlors, unbroken toys in the yard, planted flowers in beds.
A typical rate for a grass cutting of the yards of people who would hire us was two or three dollars, and as soon as we got paid for a job, we took a break from employment by going to the drugstore. There we bought milk shakes, candy bars, and Pall Mall cigarettes, that brand because it provided smokes that were longer and stronger than most others. We repaired then to the closest empty lot, ate our candy, smoked our cigarettes and talked about what we’d do when we were old enough to escape home and live on our own.
“You know one thing I will have,” Winston once told me, puffing hard on his Pall Mall, and taking hits off a quart sized Coke, “once I get grown?”
“What?” I said, drawing my own dose of smoke deep into my lungs and holding my cigarette the way James Dean did in Rebel Without a Cause, cool but necessary. “What’s that, Winston?”
“I will have my damn cigarettes, that’s what,” he said. “As many as I want to.”
“You’re damn right,” I said and flipped my butt into the street. “Let’s see if that old lady on Detroit Street will let us cut her grass again. It’s high as my knees.”
What we really wanted was access to beer, but that was hard to come by. At age sixteen, I had already been introduced to the pleasures of alcohol by my cousin on my mother’s side of the family, Addison Irwin in Maryland. I realized vaguely that I was to Addison Irwin, an older cousin from real people as opposed to the Duff bunch, as Winston was to me, but I didn’t let myself think about that at the time. The comparison made me uncomfortable. If Addison considered my status and worth in the light I considered Winston’s, I was on shaky ground. I didn’t like the terms of the equation, and the way it figured socially.
I knew one thing clearly, though. I would never want Addison, my exalted cousin, to meet Winston, my lowly one, or to know I was related to someone like him. In the meantime, though, I liked cutting grass with Winston, eating sweets and smoking cigarettes with the money we made from our efforts, and having him look up to me as older, wiser, and more sophisticated. I wanted and needed the admiring approval he gave me, and I would take all of that he had to offer. He thought I was something, though I and the rest of the world knew different.
My family went back to East Texas later that summer, but in a few months my father did find a job on the Gulf Coast, working for the City of Nederland in the Streets and Alleys Department (which meant picking up garbage and digging ditches), and we moved out of the Piney Woods for good. By that time I was in my senior year of high school, and Winston was living with his family in a town named Fannett, twenty or so miles away.
I finished high school, enrolled as a commuter student at Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont (an institution called by its students Pecker Tech because its mascot was the Cardinal and because we all knew why we were there rather than at the University of Texas or Texas A&M or some other real college like the ones in the movies), and I had little reason to be around Winston, my young cousin living in the sticks.
But then Uncle Lewis moved his clan back to Nederland, Winston enrolled in the high school, which had been a power in Texas school-boy football for years, and he proved to be a defensive end of note. One of the coaches told me years later what made Winston so formidable at his position.
“When we played any team,” he said, “they would run Winston’s end sometime early on in the game. Let me tell you, hoss, once they ran it that one time, they didn’t run it again for the rest of the game.”
“He was that good?” I said.
“He was that mean,” the coach said. “He wasn’t that big, but nobody could stop him from getting to the ball carrier. He would do whatever it took to get there.”
“And he took the ball carrier down.”
“Winston Duff took it as a personal insult that somebody carrying a football would try to get around his end of the line. He made that back pay his dues.”
Winston got enough public notice in that football crazed part of the world that people at Lamar began asking me if I was kin to him, and I allowed that I was. I even invited him to come to a retreat held by the fraternity to which I belonged, a collection of people too poor financially or ethnically or intellectually to be members of any other social organization, even of the ones at Lamar. We had foreign students in the fraternity – Japanese and Arabs – and dolts and slackers, and others recognized to be misfits of many stripes and colors. But we did wear fraternity pins, and have meetings, and we did get drunk every chance we got.
Winston was a great hit at the fraternity retreat, held on someone’s abandoned farm north of Beaumont in the palmettos and pines, and fueled with kegs of beer and random bottles of cheap liquor. At age sixteen, he drank with the best of them, not falling down and not throwing up, telling jokes and stories about playing football, and making his older cousin proud of him, a football end for the Nederland Bulldogs, destined to be recruited to play for a real university in the Southwest Conference someday.
That drunken weekend in and around the only building still standing on an abandoned and overgrown farm in Jefferson County, Texas, a tin roofed barn full of drunken college boys, proved to be the height of Winston Duff’s public regard and career, in my estimation, as I look back over the years.
Within a month’s time, Winston’s father moved his family north to Corrigan, a played out sawmill town in rumpsprung Polk County in Deep East Texas, and he took Winston with him. The head coach of the Nederland football team begged Lewis Duff to allow Winston to remain in the high school and on the team (which would have been illegal, but we’re talking Nederland Bulldog football and we’re talking keeping an advantage), living with him and his family in a subdivision tract house, in progress and on course to play out his eligibility and have a shot at attendance at a big-time Texas university where use might be found for him on the defensive end of some line in a large stadium in autumns to come.
My uncle would not allow that separation of his only son from the family, called on all the ties of kinship which bound his boy to him, and obliterated any chance for Joseph Winston Duff to escape the fate laid down for him by circumstance and blood. Winston listened to his father, accompanied the family to Corrigan, played football there in the obscurity of smalltime East Texas, and dropped out of high school in his senior year, assuring that no ray of light would ever chance to fall upon him again.
The next time I saw Winston was at my mother’s funeral at Menard Chapel in the 1960s. I was newly married, in graduate school in Arkansas, and Winston was working as a journeyman carpenter in the Beaumont area. He came up to me as soon as I arrived in the procession of cars escorting my mother’s coffin into the woods of East Texas. He was wider in the shoulders than ever, rangy in the leg, and he was with a young pregnant blonde whose bra size looked to be larger than her IQ.
“Gerald,” Winston said, grinning as we shook hands. “Aunt Dorothy was always so good to me when I was a kid and would come to y’all’s house .This here is Jeanette. We’re going to get married, I guess.” And then to the blonde, “This here is my cousin Gerald, Jeanette. He’s studying to be a college professor.”
“Hidy,” Jeanette said, staring over my shoulder at the woods behind me, proving that I was still not attractive to Texas women with big breasts. Talking to Winston, I was pained to see that his teeth had gotten bad, decay clearly visible on a couple of incisors, and more painful than that to me was that Winston was aware of the fact, holding his mouth funny and throwing a hand up to hide his teeth when he smiled or laughed.
“I bet you can’t guess how much money I made last year,” Winston said at one point, “building kitchen cabinets in new houses.”
“How much?” I said, and then naming a figure I thought would be low enough to give him bragging rights when he answered the question he’d put to me, “six thousand?”
“I made over eleven thousand dollars,” my cousin said. “And that was only what I had to declare to the government because of the paper they had on it. I really made a couple of more.”
“Damn, Winston,” I said, truly amazed at the amount of his earnings in that year in the ‘60s, “you’re really making out all right.”
He beamed, even forgetting to hide his teeth in his pride. During the funeral itself, Winston sat by me as I wept and mourned the death of my mother from cancer at age fifty-two, and I was glad to have my kinsman to lean on, literally and metaphorically that cold gray day in November on the burying ground of Menard Chapel.
It was not until several years later that I heard of Winston again. I was living in Nashville, teaching at Vanderbilt, when my sister called me to bring me up to date on Duff family news. “Too bad about Winston,” she said. “I guess you heard already.”
“What? Is Winston dead?” I said, imagining a car wreck or an accident at work, something involving sudden violence and blood and finality.
“He might as well be,” Nancy said. “He’s about to go to the penitentiary in Huntsville. I don’t know for how long, but it’s got to be years.”
“What did he do?” I asked, knowing Nancy would string out her telling of the tale for dramatic effect, true to the narrative sense of the Duffs, a clan relishing stories of disaster, loss, and abandonment. “Did he get caught robbing somebody?”
“No, Gerald,” my sister said, exasperated at my leap to conclusion. “My goodness. Winston would never steal anything from anybody. He killed a couple of black guys outside some honky tonk up in the Big Thicket, that’s what.”
“He shot them?”
“No, good lord. Winston wouldn’t shoot anybody or stab them or anything like that. They got into some kind of argument or something inside the honky tonk and when Winston went outside and got into his pickup to leave, these guys were waiting for him, I guess to beat him up, and Winston ran over them with the truck.”
“And they put him in prison for murder? It wasn’t called self defense?”
“I guess Winston could’ve got off with something like that, if that was all there was to it. But the thing is, see, after he knocked them down with the pickup, he backed up and ran over them again. That showed premeditation, the way the jury and judge saw it.”
“Lord have mercy,” I said. “And now he’s in the pen. How stupid could he have been?”
“I expect he was drunk, too,” Nancy said. “Not just stupid. So our cousin is a convict in the Huntsville pen. How do you like that?”
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t like it at all.”
“I’m not going to visit him, either,” Nancy said. “Are you?”
“How could I? I live in Tennessee.”
“I’m just not going to think about it, my cousin in the pen,” my sister said. “I’ve got enough on my mind as it is.”
“Me too, Nancy,” I said, “me too.”
After then, I went back to Texas many times over the years for visits and anniversaries and graduations and deaths, but I never tried to see Winston in the state penitentiary in Huntsville, and I never asked any member of the family for any news about him. What news could there be? He had killed two men, been convicted and sentenced to confinement, and to think about him in that situation was something I would not allow myself to do. How would he look at me if I visited him in some special room for that in the prison? What would he say to me? What would he expect me to say back to him? What would he need from me that I was not prepared to give? Did he believe I had resources inside me that I could call on? I didn’t think so. I didn’t believe I did, no matter what my cousin might think.
I didn’t want to have to try to summon up anything responsive to Winston’s emotional need. I didn’t want to discover what was inside me. Or what wasn’t. I suspected I knew already how I would act, and I didn’t want to admit that I could not and would not do my cousin any good in the worst time of his life.
After getting credit for good time served, Winston was released early from the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville on probation, and he returned to his work as a carpenter. I learned about his release indirectly, and I didn’t try to find out where he was living and what he was doing. I did not want to contact him. I had told the woman who was my wife at the time about him, about my growing up with him, and what happened to put him in prison, and she made me swear not to let such a relative know anything about where we were living, where I worked, and who she was.
“Just what we need,” she said. “A convict from Texas showing up in Gambier, Ohio, looking to re-establish old family ties.”
I agreed with her, imagining Winston asking around Kenyon College in a search for his cousin. He’d be toothless, I figured, dressed in keeping with his social status, driving either a wreck of a car or a new pickup, and eager to see me. That reminder of my family and my origins I didn’t need and could not have borne. I just won’t think about him, I told myself. Winston couldn’t find me anyway, and he’d never appear at my door, expecting me to respond to him as an older cousin from East Texas ought to do by reason of blood ties and memory.
I was right. Winston never wrote me, never called me, and never came to my door. I was never put to that test of blood. I did hear about him intermittently, though, again from my sister who had also risen socially and economically, in her case by marriage to a successful man in computers in Houston.
“Gerald,” she said one night in a phone call, “guess what Winston did when he got back home to Buna?”
“Violated probation?” I said. “Ran over some more people? Stuck up a convenience store?”
“Don’t joke.You know he’s not like that. He wouldn’t commit a crime. No, what he did was find out that that wife of his, Jeanette, had been messing around with Johnny Wooten while Winston was in the pen, and he beat the hell out of him. Broke the bones around one of Johnny’s eye sockets. That’s all he did.”
“Johnny Wooten?” I said, “Betty’s husband?”
Betty was one of Winston’s sisters, and it was in her home with her husband Johnny that Winston had been directed to stay by the Texas State Department of Corrections while he served out his probation. His wife Jeanette had been living there with her two children by Winston while he was in Huntsville. I was not surprised to learn that Johnny had put a move on his brother-in-law’s wife or that she had responded to him. The only thing out of the ordinary, I considered, was that Johnny had been stupid enough to think he could get away with it. He was not thinking at all, obviously. As my father would have said, Johnny wasn’t thinking with his head.
“Did Johnny put the law on Winston?” I said. “Will the probation people send Winston back to the pen?”
“I don’t expect Winston has anything to worry about from Johnny Wooten,” my sister said. “Johnny knows what would happen to him if he breathed a word to anybody that could get Winston put back inside.”
“Is Winston still staying at Betty’s and Johnny’s?” I said, knowing Nancy was right about Johnny Wooten taking his beating in silence. One would be enough.
“Winston has to until he gets permission to go off to live on his own, but that wife is gone now.”
“Did Winston beat her up?”
“No,” Nancy said in a disgusted tone. “You know Duffs don’t hit women. They’ve not been raised like that.”
“No,” I agreed. “A Duff from East Texas will not physically whip up on a woman. He’ll just wreak havoc on her mind.”
Yet years later when I saw Winston for what was the final time, he was still living with his sister Betty and her husband Johnny Wooten, together somewhere in a small house in a dying town on the Texas Gulf Coast. As usual, that encounter with Winston took place at a funeral, the only event that ever draws all the extended Duff family together, this one the burial of my father in Menard Chapel with the rest of the clan and their connections by marriage and happenstance.
I was even more of a curiosity to them than ever by then, though I had always been an oddity among the Duff bunch, as we were known in Polk County. All the clan remembered me as I was as a child. I was strange because I stuttered and talked at a hyperactive rate, I spent most of my time reading, impervious to calls for attention by other people, I was not athletic like most of my rangy, self-confident, supple cousins, people who shrugged off physical pain and emotional slights as they fought for possession of various kinds of balls, earning approval and admiration in the process. I was easily dissuaded, subject to fears and extended expressions of them, not prepared to be knocked down and get up again with blood in my mouth and in my mind with the intention to get payback for injury suffered.
My father’s funeral was not nearly so riven with depression and foreboding for me as had been my mother’s. When she died, she did so from cancer at age fifty two, leaving a twelve year old daughter to be raised alone by my father, a man supremely unsuited for such a task. I was in my first year of graduate school, my first wife pregnant with our first child, no financial prospects in view, my older sister Nancy living in Seattle with her husband in a time when air flight to and from Texas and paying for it were comparable to sending a man to the moon. I was on the home ground alone.
The time was November, leafless, wet, and dark. The coffin was cheap, and it was open for all to see my mother dead inside it. She had not wanted to be buried in those woods, as she called the Menard graveyard. The preacher for my mother’s service was a cousin ordained as a Baptist minister, trying his best to justify what God had chosen in His infallible wisdom to do by subjecting Aunt Dorothy to such suffering and early death.
On that desperate ground, I wept and staggered about the graveyard physically supported by Cousin Winston as he tried to speak consoling words into my ear. He repeated my name over and over as though to convince me I was still myself, capable to survive the day and meet the others to come, unknown and perilous as they might be.
Those years later at the funeral service for my father, dead at eighty-seven, things were different. It was high summer, and all the leaves were green. I was by then secure in my work. I was dean of a college in Memphis, I was the father of two accomplished and educated children, I was married to the woman right for me, I owned property, and I held title to university degrees and to professional respect. I had not been in my home country for longer than a day or two at a time in almost thirty years. I had worked myself free of the place I had come from, and I considered myself only technically a member of that Duff bunch in Polk County, Texas.
Yet when I saw Joseph Winston Duff standing in the shade of a sycamore at Menard Chapel on that hot day in August, I knew him instantly. And he knew me.
I was wearing a pin stripe suit and a dark tie, chosen from my closet by my wife because it was right for a funeral. She was not there, but back in our home in Memphis, because I didn’t want her to see in one gathering in one place the clan of people I belonged to. She had expected to accompany me, since that was what her family members did in Alabama when someone died.
“You wouldn’t like it,” I told her. “You don’t want to meet those people.”
“What’s to like or not like at a funeral?” she said. “Wives go with their husbands to the funerals of their husbands’ parents. Don’t they?”
“They do go all right. All of the family goes. That’s the problem. If they all didn’t go, I could take you with me. But every last one does go, and that’s why I can’t bear to have you there.”
“Something’s badly wrong,” she said.
“Oh, yes. Badly wrong.”
“With what you’re saying and with you, I mean,” she had said.
Standing under the sycamore tree, old when our great-grandfather preached at Menard Chapel, Winston looked at me with a quizzical tilt to his head, waiting to see if I would recognize him. He was wearing a blue jean jacket, a striped shirt, khaki pants, and his sleeked-back hair was showing signs of graying. Next to him were his sister Betty and her husband Johnny Wooten, the man who had seduced Winston’s wife while he was in prison. All had been forgiven or at least forgotten. The wife and children were long gone, but the Duff sister and brother were together.
“Winston,” I said, and we embraced for the first time in our lives, such demonstrations of affection and relationship not having been cool those years ago in the middle of the century. I greeted Betty and her husband, and Johnny reminded me of when he had fixed something gone wrong with my 1952 Dodge, a broken windshield wiper which had to function for me to be able to get a license plate. We laughed and joked, as people in East Texas do at funerals for those old enough to have had a long life. My mother had not reached that age, but my father had. The tone of the service was different, as a result, and my cousins felt free to josh and pick at me.
I remember two exchanges from that day, apart from my talk with Winston. Both were with Richardson brothers, first cousins to me and older by several years, both were basketball stars in high school and college, and both had careers as coaches of the sport.
Jesse Lee, the greater of the two in reputation and at one point coach of the basketball team in my high school, said to a group of relatives gathered around me in the graveyard, “Y’all might not know this, but Gerald tried to play basketball in high school.”
“Naw,” one of my aunts said, “Gerald was always a book worm. He wasn’t interested in ball.”
“Yes, he was,” Jesse Lee Richardson, onetime Texas all state center, said. “He was a book worm, all right, but he wanted and tried to play basketball. Didn’t you, Gerald?”
“I did,” I admitted. “Jesse Lee’s right, but I wasn’t any good.”
“He could not play a lick,” my cousin said. “But look at him now. I expect he believes he’s a self-made man, if anybody ever was.”
A little later in the day, after the service was over, and people had begun to drift away to drive back to town, the other brother, Wilson, asked me if I could hire him to coach basketball at Rhodes College. “I know how to handle inner city black players, Gerald,” he said. “That’s what y’all use in Memphis, and it takes special handling to get anything out of them.”
I told Wilson to send his resume to my office, though I didn’t tell him I had nothing to do with hiring coaches and Rhodes College was an institution for upper class white students who couldn’t get into the likes of Vanderbilt and Duke, not a place for inner city blacks to run up and down the basketball court. He never did, and I knew he wouldn’t, since getting a resume together would have involved writing something down on paper.
Winston and I talked about the time I had taken him to the drunken Lamar fraternity retreat, about our summer cutting grass together to be able to buy cigarettes and ice cream, and finally he brought up the subject lurking behind all we were saying to each other.
“Gerald,” he said, just after telling me that the most important thing my father, his Uncle Willie, had taught him was the use of Copenhagen snuff in the place of cigarettes, “I guess you heard about me and them black guys.”
I couldn’t look him in the eye after he had said that. Not because he actually hadn’t called the men he had killed “black guys,” but instead that epithet for blacks still the only label current in that place and with its people, but because I didn’t want him to tell me about it. I did not want to know the details, I did not want to hear his story, I did not want his version of reality to be offered me. I did not want to hear the truth. Let all I knew about it just be what my sister had told me during our telephone conversations over the years. “Winston killed some black men. He ran over them with his truck. He’s in the penitentiary. He’s out now. He beat up Johnny Wooten for taking his wife to bed. He’s living with Betty and Johnny now.”
“I did hear that, Winston,” I said. “I was sorry to hear about what happened.”
Winston looked at my face, trying to get me to meet his gaze, and at that moment, our cousin Jewel, a retired school teacher, walked up to join what she thought was an ordinary conversation in the graveyard at Menard Chapel. It was not that. It was a confession, a remembrance, a reminder of blood, a plea for kinship, a claim. It was all that I did not want.
I jumped on the chance to accept the definition of the moment as Jewel imagined it to be, turning away from Winston’s eyes and looking into hers.
“Jewel,” I said. “Remember when you used to read to me when I was a kid? You would read whole novels to me and Nancy while we sat on the floor listening.”
“I do remember,” she said. “I can’t believe now we all had the patience for that. Or the energy.”
“It was a different time,” I said, desperate to change the focus from what Winston had been wanting to say to me. “Kids wouldn’t sit still for that now, would they?”
“No, they wouldn’t,” Jewel said. “What were y’all talking about when I walked up? Don’t let me interrupt.”
“Jewel,” Winston said, his eyes still on me, “Gerald and I were just talking about the old days.”
“The old days. What do you two boys know about the old days?”
“Lots. Gerald was real important to me back then when I was a kid.”
“How was that?” Jewel said.
“Gerald taught me how to be bad,” Winston said. “That’s what he did for me. He was my model. He led me to know how to be bad.”
“Winston,” Jewel said in a tone of dismissal and shock, “Surely not. You shouldn’t say things like that. Don’t make jokes. Gerald did not teach you how to be bad.”
There in the graveyard at Menard Chapel, my father newly placed at rest in the earth for the long sleep that never ends, my kin all around the three of us, I knew in my bones and blood which one of the three cousins was telling the truth. It was not the retired schoolteacher. It was not the college dean. It was the convicted slaughterer of men, the boy who had pushed a lawn mower alongside me through the streets of Nederland, Texas, those years ago in the bright past, grown now into the only speaker of truth on that burying ground.
That recent dream about Winston and me from which I woke, that scene of him and me and a black man involved in a criminal act, had broken at the point where Winston was being led away in handcuffs. Just before he turned to enter the police car, he looked at me and made a gesture with his manacled hands, a sign of the kind you can interpret and believe only in dreams, since the waking world is never clearly seen and its message never certain. I knew what he was signaling. What he meant by the gesture in the dream was that he would take the blame. I was not to be afraid. I would not be found out. My cousin would be the sacrifice. In the dream I was grateful to my cousin, and I was determined to let him shoulder all burden of guilt. I would walk free, unsoiled and whole, and in the light of day. He would dwell in darkness and shame.
When I woke, I told myself that it was only a dream. It did not pertain to my life in this waking world, and it would slide away into obscurity, fade into nothing, as the days wear on. I will never see Winston again. I assured myself there in that dark room that I have never been complicit with him in any way. I was not guilty of theft. All I have I have earned by myself. I never taught him anything. He has nothing to do with me. It’s all an accident of blood relationship. It will fade, it will vanish, it will go.
I need never think of him again, my cousin Joseph Winston, dead now and buried in some graveyard on the Gulf Coast, not at Menard Chapel. We were kin only in blood, not in kind. I tell myself that now, but I know I lie.