When he was a little boy, Jeb Coleman would pick at the scabs on his knees and elbows, imagining how his daddy would suffer before dying. The old man would often get drunk on Four Roses whiskey and start itching to punch everything in sight. Jeb took the brunt of it. His muh, too, when she intervened. Jeb would try to defend her and get whupped some more. Meanwhile, his three sisters would look on and cry. They could outfight Jeb—they brazenly did it in public—but when it came to standing up to their father at home, they were too chicken.
Jeb’s favorite way for his daddy to die was strapping him to a chair with the belt he used to sharpen his shaving knife, the one he preferred to whup Jeb with, then slicing him all over. Each time Jeb pried off a bit of scab with a gasp, revealing the whitish skin beneath that prickled with blood, he imagined it was what his daddy would feel.
As it turned out, his daddy’s death did involve prolonged suffering. The old man spent weeks coughing blood and struggling to breathe, then disappeared into the hospital for another few weeks, only to get delivered home in a box just before Christmas. By that point, Jeb was feeling more horror than satisfaction about his daddy’s death, because he wasn’t positive what truly caused it. Consumption, his muh insisted. She drilled his sisters and him one night at the kitchen table till they could pronounce it correctly, should anyone ask.
The thing that sent Jeb’s daddy to the hospital started over his Four Roses in October of 1920, around Halloween. The old man had managed to stockpile a few crates of the whiskey just before Prohibition went into effect the year before, storing them in a stack in the basement. Whenever Jeb and his sisters used the toilet down there, they were afraid to get too close, should a crate accidentally fall.
That October day, Jeb’s daddy was complaining yet again about Jeb’s muh’s cooking. Everybody kept their eyes on their plates through the grumbling. The old man’s words were interrupted often by his hacking cough, which made them tense up more. Jeb tried to keep his eyes from sliding to the red-spotted handkerchief that was produced.
This burnt and rubbery mess. Who you learn to cook from, them damn folks across the street, with they smelly sausages? I done worked all day and come home hungry and tired—the least I can get is a decent meal from my wife.
Finally, Jeb’s muh dropped her fork against her plate with a clatter and said calmly, “I’m tired, too. I just cooked a whole spread for thirty people, so cut me some slack.”
Jeb didn’t realize he was holding his breath until he made eye contact with his sisters. The fear he felt was reflected back.
His daddy had stopped eating and wiped his mouth, saying just as calmly, “What you say?”
His muh resumed sawing into her food like it was him she wanted to cut. “Why don’t you just drink your goddamn whiskey? That’s all you be needing anyway.”
The old man’s laugh didn’t sound amused. “Woman,” he said, fingering the Four Roses bottle he’d been drinking from, “you better be glad this ain’t empty. If it was, I’d—”
Jeb stood up and shouted, “Leave my muh alone!”
He remembered the gaping mouths, including his daddy’s. It was the first time Jeb had commanded him. The first time words came out of his mouth without stumbling over one another. That all made Jeb resolve to take his punishment like a man, like his daddy always demanded of him.
When the old man told him to remove his shirt and kneel on the floor, he obeyed. His sisters started to sob, even the youngest, Rosine, daddy’s favorite. She was soon pleading with their daddy to stop. No matter how much Jeb tightened his stomach, the sting of the blows made him wince. He willed his muh to stop screaming, though, would have turned to her and said, “Look, muh, I ain’t even shed one tear,” but he heard her running away. Then came the steady shattering of bottles downstairs.
The whupping stopped. Jeb’s daddy dashed for the basement stairs, and Jeb and his sisters scampered after him.
Jeb’s memory gets jumbled from there, since his muh told the children they didn’t see what they saw. What Jeb remembered most clearly is the funk of whiskey in the basement, his muh on her back, and his daddy’s hands squeezing her neck. Then his daddy’s tongue, thick and poking through his lips. Or was it his muh’s? Then the shaving belt around his daddy’s throat like a necktie, which made Jeb’s thoughts jump back in time—his daddy standing before the parlor mirror in his church clothes, wiggling the knot of his tie. Then he saw his daddy in that splintery casket, wearing the same black suit.
Jeb remembered going for the belt in the kitchen but didn’t know how it got around his daddy’s neck. He remembered how the leather was rough on one side and smooth on the other, how his hands went numb until he felt his older sister Verna helping pull. He remembered their sisters screaming and Rosine running out of the house.
The policeman Rosine brought back made Jeb think white folks weren’t as bad as he overheard his parents and other adults talking about, and that could only be because what he saw really did happen. The policeman pushed Jeb and Verna away from their daddy so hard that they tumbled, but when the policeman saw Jeb’s muh still gasping for breath on the wet floor, he undid the belt and shoved it at Jeb’s bare torso. By the time the men came to put Jeb’s daddy on a stretcher and take him to the hospital, his daddy was breathing again—coughing, in fact—and the policeman and his muh were nodding at each other and saying, “fever” and “consumption.”
When Jeb was old enough to have a family of his own, he hardly ever laid hands on his boys. His wife was another matter altogether. Bertha nagged him so much that she drove him to craziness. Like the time he kicked her when she was pregnant with their first child. But never did he let his children witness what he had growing up. Whenever he got the urge to give her a smack or two, he was discreet about it. He’d take her to their bedroom and shut the door.
She couldn’t live without him, she used to say anytime he left their flat. She’d complain about how lonely she was during the day. If Jeb decided to eat dinner at his muh’s place, which was often since Bertha undersalted and burned food, she’d start sniveling and carrying on. She no longer had to go to work for a living, which he’d made possible for her, and it irked him that she didn’t seem to appreciate it.
When Jeb threatened to leave her for good one day, she told him he couldn’t, but not in the definitive way his muh would have said it. Bertha confessed he might die if he left, then admitted she’d put hoodoo on him. He wasn’t the type to believe in hoodoo, but it suddenly explained everything: why he went crazy over her in the beginning, when he only meant to fool around. Why it was her he wanted even when he escaped to other women’s beds. It was her fault, then, that she’d gotten pregnant, and that her mama forced him to marry her, and that his muh had a conniption because of it.
His muh called him hen-pecked because he couldn’t keep his eyes off Bertha, who she let be known to anyone who cared to listen was lazy, fat, and useless. She later said he should have stopped at the first kid, since it was a boy at that—enough to pass his name to. But no, he had to go messing around with Bertha and having more kids. Why didn’t he get a woman on the side, like everybody else? (He had a few; it didn’t help). And yes, he could move back home to Waldorf Place to help cover expenses… why did he think he had to ask? Did he not remember she was against him moving out in the first place? Did he forget he became the man of the house when his daddy died?
As soon as he and Bertha moved in, his muh harped on Bertha to get a job, but that’s where Jeb drew the line. No wife of his was going to work, not after seeing his muh struggle for so many years, kowtowing so much to her employers that she bottled up her evil moods for home. His muh argued that the only ladies who stay home all day are rich and white. Jeb countered that Rosine’s husband didn’t let her work either. His muh said it was because Rosine stayed too drunk to do much else. Jeb said that might be true, but this was New Jersey; didn’t his daddy and other Colored men move north for their women to stop cleaning up after white folks, like she still did? If the Depression hadn’t struck, he told her, he’d be making enough money so she wouldn’t have to work either.
That appeased her, but soon she found other reasons to gripe with Bertha, and she took to cussing Jeb out for his poor judgment. Jeb hoped Bertha would get so aggravated that she’d just leave. But the more his muh harangued her, the more Bertha clung to him, and the more it made him lust after her. He continued to slap her around because she made his muh treat him like a stranger in his own house.
So maybe he dropped the hint to his muh that the marriage was more than he could handle, that Bertha had put a hoodoo spell on him and he was afraid for his life. Then one day he arrived home to find Bertha gone and his muh smirking, saying she ran off with some man. Then came the rumors around Vauxhall, that his muh pulled Bertha out of the house by her hair. That she walked through town screaming for help, which no one provided. That she lost a baby in the process. Jeb shot it all down, saying it wasn’t true because his muh had told him otherwise.
Although his children never saw him hurt Bertha, Jeb beat his firstborn one time like his daddy beat him, and with the old man’s shaving belt, no less. It was the day his muh told him the boy killed a cat in the stove. His muh had already beaten Spencer for it, but Jeb chased him down for more. That cat had been her favorite, but it was more than that. Really, it was Spencer’s eyes. They were the old man’s eyes. Whenever Jeb felt them on him, his pressure shot up. It was as if his daddy had come back to accuse him. Jeb liked to tell himself he was whupping the ghost out of the boy.
Bertha begged him to spare Spencer. She got on her knees as she often did, hugging his legs and pressing her wet cheeks to his slacks. As Jeb went to pry her away, a queasiness come over him seeing her stooped there, so much shorter than she already was. He saw his daddy pushing his muh aside to come at him. In that moment, he understood that he and Spencer were more alike than he cared to admit: they hurt something small because the real target was beyond reach.
A few years later, Jeb learned he, and perhaps Spencer, too, weren’t alone in wanting to kill the one who sired them. He was fishing on Lake Hopatcong with his buddy Booker, who’d gotten riled up about what his wife had read in the Star-Ledger. One of those relationship columns mentioned some Austrian head-shrinker who talked about sons being jealous of their fathers. Booker guzzled his beer and shook his head, saying, “I mean, I ain’t always see eye-to-eye with my old man, but I ain’t wanna kill him. You hear me, slim? And what I’m gone be wanting my mama like a lady friend for?” Jeb didn’t know about that wanting-your-mother part either, but he could otherwise relate.
Booker reeled in a rainbow trout that day larger than anything either of them had caught. Jeb, who always caught bigger fish, felt a twinge of envy. As he honored Booker’s request for a photo, Jeb was struck by the look on his friend’s face. Booker was grinning wide enough to reveal his gold side tooth—the look of a triumphant but doting son. A look Jeb’s sons never gave him.
Jeb staggered back to his seat, feeling ill as he envisioned Spencer, his first child, the child he never wanted, who embarrassed him with the mopey ways and the stutter so much like his own as a boy, which drove Jeb to slap him upside the head and call him names. But, Jeb told himself, struggling to breathe, it was all so much milder than how his daddy treated him. Then his other son, Fred, popped into his mind, and his breathing gradually returned to normal.
Fred and his sister Nancy visited Jeb and his woman Faye at their flat every so often. As with Booker and his giant trout, Jeb would feel the same mix of envy and admiration, listening to the kids update him on their lives. On one visit, Fred had just turned thirteen, Nancy fifteen, and they already had more schooling than Jeb. With the way they gushed about their teachers and classes and assignments, it seemed they would be the only of his five to finish high school.
Jeb was proud of them but couldn’t tell them. “I’m proud of you” would have sounded odd, as if coming from an actor in the movies. Jeb was never one for talking, anyway, and he never knew what to say to his children in general. Outside his work shifts, he avoided the house on Waldorf. He needed time alone or with Faye to recoup from his worries about not making enough money, which chased him even in his sleep. His boss was a jolly old Italian man who praised Jeb for his work and slipped him a little extra on holidays, but after more than a decade, Jeb had not graduated from the back of his garbage trucks, whereas the Italian rookies became drivers in a year or two.
Uncomfortable as the visits were from Fred and Nancy, Jeb was glad they came to see him. The others didn’t, which annoyed him, after all he’d done for them. Every Sunday, he’d go to the house on Waldorf with food and most of his pay, which he turned over to his muh for the children’s expenses. For the longest time, he felt rotten about not doing more for them, which he argued with himself about. He’d wanted them to have better than he did at that age, like new clothes and shoes every season instead of at the start of each new school year, but they were born right after the Depression. He filled the gaps with clothes salvaged from fire sales. With five children, it was the best he could do. When Rosine went and dumped her five at the house, Jeb covered their costs, too, feeling sorry for the wretches.
There was only one child Jeb refused to provide for. Hearsay came months after Bertha left that she was whoring over in Newark. The fellas in Vauxhall teased Jeb about it, so he went looking for her, to prove them wrong. It was one of few times he did something against his muh’s wishes, but the teasing took him back to his boyhood years, when everyone from his sisters to the kids at school used to gang up on him for being so quiet and for stammering when he finally spoke. He indeed found Bertha at a whorehouse, but she was cleaning up behind a bunch of bull-dykes. Somehow he got past them to take his marital right. The only thing that kept him from going back was when the bulliest of them gave him a black eye, and when Faye later drew a kitchen knife and threatened to give him worse if he ever touched his wife again. As a result, he never knew exactly when that last child was born. Jeb merely heard that Bertha sent him to live with her sister a few blocks from Waldorf.
Jeb’s muh swore the boy wasn’t his—Bertha left him for another man, of course—but Jeb could recognize him even from behind. When the boy must have been ten or so, he looked so much like Jeb at that age: gangly and awkward, with the long face just like Jeb’s, just like his daddy’s. Still, Jeb couldn’t get behind the idea of spending his hard-earned money on a child that might have come from adultery.
Son or no, it led Jeb to ponder: not providing for a child—now that’s a good reason a son should want his daddy dead. The Austrian might have gotten it half-right, at least.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.