weekend-readsThe First to Look Away

George Singleton

Our house’s value, I understand now, never increased after my father completed the moat. My mother never warned him against such a project—at least not outwardly—but thinking back on this misguided venture, it would be difficult to conceive of any excitement on her part. My father started off using the Increased Incidents of Documented Rabies argument, and ended with some kind of notion that, should he decide to sell off his river rock business and uproot to warmer climes, prospective buyers would clamor over a log house situated on its own island. Raccoons and foxes and feral pigs couldn’t cross the canals, as long as we kept the two planned catwalks up drawbridge-style. A real estate agent would have no problems convincing her clients that a house surrounded by water would be like living on the Love Boat, my father rationalized daily for a week.

“Or Alcatraz,” my mother said, looking out to where the Unknown Branch of the Saluda River would detour into my father’s man-made trench. She lit a cigarette each time she said this, took a couple drags, then stamped them out on a windowsill that she insisted was petrified wood anyway.

I didn’t know how he understood to design it thusly without the use of a backhoe and level. I do know how embarrassed I felt when, out of nowhere, my fifth-grade teacher announced, “Now, class, I want all of you to wear work clothes on Friday. I’m going to send a note home to your parents reminding them, and you’ll need to bring either a shovel or a pickax. We’re going on a field trip to Stet’s house, and dig for the rubies and sapphires! Why didn’t you tell us you lived on a ruby and sapphire farm, Stet?”

I stared at Ms. Sebhatu, an Ethiopian woman who came to the United States as a teenager, rescued by missionaries (according to her). Then she was forced—I pieced together later—to attend a Baptist institution of higher learning where she discovered, evidently, that her old tribe’s animist beliefs made more sense than the magic tricks scattered throughout the Bible. Looking back, I doubt Ms. Sebhatu could’ve ever been hired at a normal public school, but at Andrew Jackson Prep—which attracted students both black and white on both sides of the North and South Carolina border—she fit in perfectly with the prevailing embittered mentality of both students and their ancestors, though I supposed that Ms. Sebhatu owned some palpable and rational reasons.

This was on a Monday. Ms. Sebhatu would be talking about the field trip for another four days, I knew, just like when we got in a bus and drove all the way into Greenville in order to learn how waste water got treated, followed by a trip to the coroner’s office. The entire week before, she kept reminding us to bring gas masks or respirators or surgical masks, Mentholatum to put on our upper lips, and Pepto-Bismol.

I froze. My classmates stared at me. Justin Gardiner twirled a Frisbee on his fingers—the Andrew Jackson Fighting Jacks’ Junior Varsity Frisbee Golf team was playing John C. Calhoun Prep, our arch rivals that afternoon—and said, “Your daddy pulls out regular old flat rocks from the river. He ain’t got no safaris.”

Ms. Sebahtu once said that she liked for him to keep a Frisbee at the ready, for it reminded her of the Surma women back on the home continent of southwest Ethiopia wearing lip plates.

I said to Justin, “Yeah he does.” I thought, What if they ask me why I’ve never brought any of these precious gemstones into class for show-and-tell? I thought, What if they ask me how come my mother didn’t wear spectacular shiny earrings when parents volunteered for PTA, or bake sales to raise money for a new gym called “The Hermitage,” or when she showed up for conferences because of my inability to contract ADD like everyone else—my teachers said I concentrated too much. One time I stared at a math problem for three class periods trying to figure out the answer, because there ended up being a typo in the textbook.

Justin said, “How come you ain’t ever brung any diamonds to show-and-tell?”

I looked at Ms. Sebahtu for some help. She smiled, wearing her special Monday turban that had smiley faces on the fabric. I said, “You’re not paying attention to the grammar lessons, Frisbee boy.” I said, “Why don’t you bring in any bags of trash to show off, seeing as your dad’s a garbage collector? Hey, why don’t you bring in your sister on Explain Your Job Day so we can understand prostitution a little better.”

Sometimes my mother got called in for conferences because I had what the principal called “a smart mouth.”

“Learning what hard work feels like is a valuable lesson,” my father tried to explain to me when I got home and asked him about the field trip. “Y’all might learn that you want to do well in school so you don’t have to dig ditches the rest of your lives.”

I looked at my mother. She shook her head, rolled her eyes, dried her hands off on a dish towel and said, “If anybody needs me I’ll be in the bathroom pouring Drano into the sink and toilet. Possibly my esophagus.” Sometimes she accused my father of dumping river silt into our septic system just to keep her busy, to keep her from buying used high school annuals from across the South in hopes that she’d happen upon a famous or infamous person’s photograph and then resell the yearbook. She said it was like a twenty-year bet, and that if she bought them for five dollars each and then sold them for over a hundred, it was better interest than what the banks offered. I hadn’t learned how to compound interest on a five-dollar bill over two decades yet, and always stared out the window for hours at a time when she spouted these difficult multiplication problems into the air.

I said, “Are there really rubies and sapphires on our land? Why didn’t you tell me? How come you don’t get some of the part-time workers to dig for them instead of pulling regular old flat rocks from the river?”

My father smiled. He said, “Well, there might be. There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

I said, “This is a trick.”

On his way out the door, my father took me by the arm. “Come with me and give me some advice, Stet. I need to know what you think.”

He didn’t, of course. What he wanted me to do was join his insane one-man team in order to help convince my mother that his river redirection plan wasn’t on par with most Army Corps of Engineers projects. As we walked down the slope toward the Unknown Branch of the Saluda River, then veered upriver, I said, “I sure would like a car.”

“You ain’t old enough yet,” he said.

“A four-wheeler. An ATV. I could use an ATV. I could drag pallets of river rocks up toward the road. It might also keep me from telling Ms. Sebhatu that we have no emeralds or rubies or sapphires or diamonds. Gold.”

My father patted my head about eight times, each tap increasingly harder. He said, “Stet, Stet, Stet, Stet. You know why I named you Stet, son?”

I said, “For a Stetson. That’s what you told me before. You named me for a cowboy hat.”

We continued walking until we came upon a stob my father had driven into the soft river edge. He said, “No,” and turned to admire the log house his father had built. “No, it’s because ‘stet’ is a term used by editors when they realize they made a mistake. Let’s say an editor thinks a word is misspelled, and he spells it differently, then he gets out a dictionary and finds that he was wrong—not the writer—he writes cstet’ out in the margins. S-T-E-T. It’s like saying, ‘I thought I was right originally, but I made a mistake. My fault.'”

I said, “Why don’t they just write, ‘OK’?”

“It stands for ‘let it stand.’ Kind of like you’re standing here right now, today. With your father. Right?”

Normally I could follow my father’s train of thought. Normally he said something like, “Get out the weed eater,” and I knew that if I complained his next line would be, “Or I will, and I’ll lash your legs with it while you’re sleeping.” One night he actually feigned doing this, but it ripped up the sheet down toward the foot of my bed and my mom dialed 9-1- until Dad convinced her that he was kidding, that he made a mistake in judgment.

I said, “Right. I’m with you. Standing.”

“Stet. Or should I say, ‘Let Him Stand’—your mother didn’t want to have children. As you may have noticed, we only had one. I was all for having a child. She wasn’t.” Right away I knew two things: My father told a lie, and he shouldn’t have been saying any of this. “So in a way, your being here is because of me. You have a good life, don’t you, Stet? You’re having a pretty good time overall, aren’t you?”

I said, “Yes sir.” It was the truth. I loved the river, and I got some kind of satisfaction from watching my parents argue in ways that were both nonaggressive and abnormal. I said, “I’m not thinking about suicide like most of the kids a year ahead of me. I’m happy.”

“Good, Stet,” he said. “Good, good, good. Then I guess you can see where this is going. You’re a smart fellow. You can understand that if we don’t make a moat around the house, then I’ll be unhappy. And if I’m unhappy, then everyone around me will be unhappy, right? It’s called cause and effect. Now we don’t want any effect nosing around our business, do we?”

I shook my head. I had a feeling that my father kept a tape recorder hidden somewhere nearby, if not under his shirt. I said, “We can always fill it back in if it doesn’t work out.” Already I kind of imagined stagnant water, and mosquito larvae.

“I believe I can handle one ATV, son. One ATV, on order.” He touched his temple with his right index finger.

I said, “We might need a moat in case we really do find some rubies. Then everybody would be sneaking onto the property, wanting to dig.”

My father said, “Huh. I never thought about that.” He said, “Hot damn. Promise me this: If you think you find a ruby or sapphire, don’t yell out anything. Just put it in your pocket.”

I said, “OK.”

Then we walked to an outbuilding and got out a four-wheel, chalk-dust contraption I’m pretty sure I’d seen at my school, out by the soccer field. My father made me push it in an arc around our house, outlining where my classmates would soon dig.

There was no way possible for my classmates to dig a proper moat, at least not in one Friday. It didn’t take a surveyor to point out that our house stood at least ten feet higher than river altitude. I didn’t need to stare off in the distance and calculate out that if we dug ten feet and an inch behind our house, then remained level to the water, the moat wouldn’t be but an inch deep all the way around, not counting flood conditions.

I stood at the end of our driveway with a chamois cloth on a stick in order to wave down the rarely used, field-trip-driving bus driver. There was no sense, my father said, for me to take the bus all the way to school, then return with my class, et cetera. Let me say now that I thought about hiding out in the woods, watching the bus go past our house, then returning to my father at around noon to say Ms. Sebhatu must’ve changed her mind. But I knew about both my parents’ obsessive behavior, and how Dad would simply reschedule the event.

They showed up early. Right there seated over the wheel well was our principal, a driven woman named Dr. Cheezem, whom we all called, of course, a number of things behind her back, and always said, “Bless you,” when someone yelled out her name, seeing as it sounded like a sneeze. I overheard my mother tell my father Dr. Cheezem’s story one night—something about how she trained to play the clarinet but failed as a musician; then subsequently received advanced degrees in education but failed as a teacher; then became an administrator. Later on in life I recognized this continuum often, especially after three undergraduate degrees and part of a low-residency master’s in Southern Culture Studies. Every time I got sent to Dr. Cheezem’s office I noticed two paperbacks turned over open on her desk, but it took until college before I recognized the significance. One book was Machiavelli’s The Prince, the other Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book.

Sometimes our principal herded us into the cafeteria at Andrew Jackson Prep and gave us motivational speeches that stretched two or three class periods, and all ended with us having to chant “I will not ruin the community, I will obey” over and over.

“Welcome to Looper Mines!” my father yelled out, smiling, as my classmates descended.

Ms. Sebhatu walked a wide arc away from the river and came to shake my father’s hand. She said, “Thank you so much for having us, Mr. Looper. This should be very educational.”

“Hey there, Ms. Sebhatu,” he said, pronouncing her name correctly for the first time. He’d practiced, I knew.

Dr. Cheezem lined everyone up single file and had them hold shovels across their shoulders like rifles. She said, in an eerily quiet manner, “‘To link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned.'” Straight out of Chairman Mao, I learned some dozen years later while taking a course in college called “The Variety of Communist Experiences.” The professor had that Andy Warhol print of Chairman Mao on an easel of sorts, the mouth cut out, and he liked to stand directly behind it and offer up aphorisms in what could best be described as a politically incorrect Chinese dialect. I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion or what, but I left that class every Monday-Wednesday-Friday and went down to order egg rolls for lunch more often than not.

My classmates grabbed their shovels, and I grabbed mine, and my father directed everyone to the apex of his property and pointed out where to dig. Ms. Sebhatu said, “So where is the flume line? Where are the screens?”

My father looked at her a good five seconds. Later on he would say to my mother, “How the hell does a woman from Ethiopia know so much about mining for sapphires and rubies? Are there ruby mines in Ethiopia that I’ve somehow missed reading about? Why don’t those people in Ethiopia just sell off all their giant rubies and sapphires to the jewelers of the world and use the money to buy food that’s at least a step up from a bag of free flour?”

A girl from my class named May-May wandered down by the river. Ms. Sebhatu called out to her, “Do not let your shadow fall across the river water, May-May. If a fish or turtle bites your shadow, there goes your soul.” She turned back to my father, awaiting his answer.

May-May dragged her shovel behind her and said, “When’s lunch? I’m hungry. My parents told me that my diamond earrings are more important than any of these nasty rubies.”

My father said to Ms. Sebhatu, “It’s called dry mining.” To the class he announced, “Remember the three Cs—color, clarity, and crystals. Rubies and sapphires always have a crystal formation with six sides. And you’re looking for a kind of dusky red color for the rubies and about any color between black and white for the sapphires.”

I looked at him. He made eye contact for about a tenth of a second and looked away. Where did he find all of this knowledge on gemstones? On the porch of our house, my mother held a coffee cup to her mouth and shook her head. May-May sprinted up the steps, banging the shovel. She said that her parents let her drink coffee whenever she wanted it.

Each of my classmates—and me, too—held up every single stone we uncovered and said, “Is this a ruby? Is this a ruby? Is this a ruby?” because they were all somewhat red from the clay.

Dr. Cheezem pulled some pom-poms out of her bag—her real dream in life finally come true—and cheered us on throughout the entire ordeal. Maybe there were similar words in one of the Ethiopian dialects that Ms. Sebhatu grew up speaking, but it sounded like she said “oy vey” every time Dr. Cheezem tried to perform a toe touch, right front hurdler, spread eagle, or left Herkie jump. I kept my eyes on the ground and dug.

We didn’t uncover any gemstones, or if we did there was no one around to identify them correctly. We uncovered some nice chunks of quartz, and a couple of my father’s buried childhood dogs. Ms. Sebhatu ran back to the bus and wouldn’t come out when Justin levered out a small homemade pine coffin, brushed off the front, and read out loud, “Here Lies Rex—1953-1962.” He turned to the principal and said, “Can we open it up and look inside?”

My father yelled out, “Rex!” and began weeping immediately. He took two or three steps toward the coffin, then looked at the sky in much the same way I did when concentrating to the point of catatonia.

I said, “That wouldn’t be good luck, I don’t think. Maybe we better put that thing back in the ground.” Three feet later we uncovered a dog named Moses, which I remembered my father talking about because it would barrel across the river in such a way as to part the water.

May-May—who hadn’t dug one shovelful yet and said that her parents sent a note explaining how she couldn’t ever perform manual labor because it might affect her piano fingers or her debutante-to-be calves—said, “I’ve had six poodles, but when they died we had them cremated and placed in urns.” Later on in life I understood that if I’d’ve taken my shovel and gotten a good swing at May-May’s head, the world would be a better place.

The rest of my classmates and I, though, dug until we had blisters the size of bubble wrap. My mother finally came out on the porch and put a stop to it all. I’m not sure if she wanted to protect my father, but she came out and yelled, “I don’t know why y’all are wasting your time. It’s not even sapphire or ruby season! It’s not the right time to dig. Everybody get on up here for some homemade pie and ice cream and ginger ale. And vitamin E.”

Dr. Cheezem held her pom-poms up in the air above her head, then brought them down to a T formation. She chanted, “Push ’em back, push ’em back, w-a-a-a-a-y back,” maybe, I guess, thinking that we had to refill the ditch. She shuffle-footed in reverse. Even only being fifth graders, as a group we turned and witnessed the beginning of our principal’s long downhill struggle with dementia. Ms. Sebhatu yelled through one of the open windows of the bus, “Were you trained to play the clarinet, or the kazoo?”

My father dropped his shovel and stretched his back. He said quietly to no one in particular, “This is a good start. I can get some day laborers to finish it off.”

My mother provided Band-Aids, Bactine, Neosporin, ice packs, sunburn lotion, and a threat to May-May if she talked anymore about her wealthy parents and the fountain that they had in their front yard. Ms. Sebhatu finally eased back out of the school bus, but she looked to be in shock, and she mumbled something that I took to be her religion’s special protection prayer against disturbing the dead.

At two-thirty my classmates boarded the bus and went off to what I imagined would be a weekend filled with muscle aches. They took with them all the chunks of quartz that we found and piled off to the side, for the principal decided that it might be educational to have a rock garden of sorts somewhere between the science room and the cafeteria. May-May yelled from the bus window, “My momma’s got diamonds bigger than these quartzes,” I think as one final shot toward my mother.

In the house my father said, “Y’all did some good work out there today, Stet. I guess we know now that indeed we don’t live atop a gem mine.”

For the first time I remember, I stared at him until he was the first to look away. I said, “How long did it take you to bury those dogs? They were pretty deep. If you knew then what you know now, maybe you should’ve just continued digging until you had a moat.”

My father began crying again, got up, walked down to the river, waded in halfway, and just stood there. Me, I got the telephone book and looked up backhoe and trencher rental information. Then I went back out with my shovel to dig harder and deeper than anyone.

It took us two months. When my father had an excess of river rocks loaded up on pallets and no landscapers in the offing, he paid his one full-time employee, Mr. Welling, to shovel out what ended up being a twelve-foot-wide canal that ran in a beautiful Bell curve around the house, except for two stutters to avoid Rex’s and Moses’s graves. I worked after school most days, and saved the quartz to add to Dr. Cheezem’s collection. She later made all of her teachers and staff attend a motivational speech performed by an honest-to-God motivational speaker, and they heated up those rocks in a bonfire, spread them out, and walked across the hot coals in some kind of ritual that supposedly manufactured instant feelings of teamwork and community. I remember all of this because our school got shut down for a week when I was in sixth grade. There weren’t enough substitute teachers available while the regular ones sat at home with their legs elevated, nursing third-degree burns on their soles.

Anyway, we dug the moat about fifteen feet at its deepest, hit a spring that helped us out, and finished off the task with my father at the moat’s entrance and me at the exit. On the count of three we dug like crazy the last couple feet toward the Unknown Branch of the Saluda River. The water entered, and by the time it rounded the house I had clearance for it to meet back up with where it belonged, on its way to the Congaree, and then to the Cooper, and finally somewhere into the Atlantic outside of Charleston. At least that’s what my father told me and how I envisioned it—not counting lakes and dams in between.

My father then dropped timbers across and built a couple walk ways. Sometimes I sat on the planks and dropped a line in, hoping that trout took refuge in our man-made diversion. They didn’t. Sometimes I rode an inner tube around the house. It got old fast.

“Tell your father that he needs to account for erosion,” Ms. Sebhatu said on that first Monday back after the field trip. She stood at the entranceway to the room, as if wanting to catch me alone. A few members of the class didn’t show up, and their parents called both the school and my father. “Once that water begins digging into the soil constantly, over and over, the island will shrink.” Did my father tell her of his scheme? Were all ex-Baptist animists mind readers?

I said, “Yes ma’am.”

“Perhaps that is how South America and Africa became separated,” she said. “Maybe someone had a grand idea of digging a ditch the length of what is now Brazil and Angola, among other countries’ coastlines. Perhaps. Perhaps the water finally floated them off from each other into two giant islands. You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

Ms. Sebhatu wore her smiley-face turban. She didn’t smile, though. She didn’t blink. Her countenance held a wisdom carried down over millennia, as if the knowledge gathered from every genera tion now amassed behind her eyes. I said, “I wouldn’t like that very much. If anything, I want to live somewhere else.”

“That’s my boy,” Ms. Sebhatu said. She nodded. “Tell your father that he was right in his thinking: We all now know that we don’t want to be unpaid laborers or slaves for the entirety of our lives. We have learned that much. You tell him Ms. Sebhatu relayed this information to you, Stet. And you, too, must learn from your father’s bad decisions.”

I thought, I’m going to fail the fifth grade. I said, “I might’ve been adopted.”

We would refill the moat a year later. Sure enough, the Unknown Branch of the Saluda River flooded most of November and December, which caused the banks to flow away until the water chipped and exposed Rex and Moses until their coffins floated down to the mouth of the moat and lodged there. My father never really got over that sight. It changed him. We didn’t pry the lids off or anything, but I sup posed that only fur and bone remained inside. I helped him fish the pine boxes out and set them up by one of the outbuildings. He, alone, rigged my ATV with the back bumper of an old truck and shoved mounds of clay back into our fancy ditch. Then we reburied the dogs.

One day after sixth-grade geography class, I walked over to Ms. Sebhatu’s room in the other wing of our school. I told her the story. She said we need not worry about rabid animals nearing our front porch, or even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ms. Sebhatu said she’d offered a special prayer for my fearful family, one that always worked, no matter which continent.

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