By Steven Williams
Man was made to sweat. This has been the universal truth since the first mandate was broken. The rule was evident in every facet of my life, from the sermons at Calvary Baptist to the gangster rap my brothers and I listened to while our parents were away. Though he knew nothing of the latter, Lamar was the exemplar of this ideal. The natural corollary was that women were made to serve. These dynamics showed up in both the Gospels and Jazzy Belle, so we never thought to question them.
We walked with Lamar throughout the city, three curly-headed, light-skinned boys who were made to stay “on the inside” of their stepfather, arranged by age, the youngest farthest from the street. Lamar was a deacon at Calvary, though one would believe him to be a preacher. Walks, bus trips and train rides were all valuable moments to instill discipline and respect for hierarchy into three exhausted children. The underlying theme remained constant as it wove through his endless stories. If a man did not work, he was no man. For women, there was no choice – you were a lover, a mother or a whore.
As the oldest, I was expected to set the example for the other two. We constantly fought, more often against neighborhood kids than among ourselves. When Jeremy would come home with a torn shirt and bloody lip, I was scolded for not taking up for family. We three were just as often the instigators of these front yard brawls as the victims, so we knew the rules quite well. But any explanation fell on deaf ears. Fight etiquette dictated that there was to be no assistance if both parties contained an equal number of participants. We won and lost fights based on our own merit.
On the occasions that David was caught stealing, I would be reprimanded alongside him. He and I found that Sunday school loophole quite early and realized we could commit any sin as long as we repented during evening prayers. We avoided eternal damnation and still got T.I.’s debut album on release day. I prided myself on my ability to locate and discard security tags unnoticed, and I was prouder still of the contraband carefully hidden throughout the house. God was capable of forgiveness. My parents were not.
My siblings and I remained fairly unconcerned with whatever punishments were meted out, save for the whippings. Whenever an offense involved all three of us, it was much more convenient for Lamar to have us strip down, underwear to ankles, dish out an equal amount of licks and be done with the thing altogether. Whichever stepson he decided to hit first had it the worst, simply for the sheer uncertainty. The other two would count the strikes, and would at least know how many they were expected to receive. The first could only hope that the previous swing was the final one. When Lamar was finished with us, he would hang his cracked leather belt back upon the hook on the bedroom door, where it stood as our own personal guillotine in the town square.
At night, after “Monday Night Raw” gave way to infomercials, I would sit with my stepfather as he talked about the day’s work. Over the years, he had been a chef at almost every fine dining establishment in the city, but he never settled in one place for long, for there were circumstances that always seemed beyond his control. There were fights in a few kitchens. Another had far too many faggots for his liking. I would stay and listen while my mother put the others to bed. If anything happened to him, he told me, I would be the man of the house. My mother was a strong woman, but that’s all she was. She needed support.
The summer I turned 15, Lamar and I spoke with his manager, and I was hired on at his restaurant to do errand work. That summer was spent in the dish pit, in the freezer and outside sweeping cigarette butts, and I couldn’t have been happier. We would ride the train up to Five Points in the early dawn and unlock the back door with a key hidden in a lamp post. We set the chairs in silence. We cut bread crust to make croutons. When the delivery truck arrived, we signed off on the meats and I would grind and prepare the required amount for the day. This was work, and it was good.
The other employees would show up soon after the initial prep, and I was greeted with handshakes and nods. I traded dirty jokes and talked shit with grown men I’d never met before. There were certain topics and boundaries that were off limits, yet what those boundaries were was never clearly defined. I was simply expected to know them. Though I wasn’t exactly a fan of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” I understood that any request to change the radio station would be summarily ignored. When I entered the restroom before store open to find two chefs on the verge of blows, I knew to leave for the time being and afterwards, to admit nothing to management. For me, this unspoken acceptance further established my passage into manhood.
I worked at a couple of other places throughout the next two years, but none of them held the thrill of the first. These jobs felt more like the drudgery that I grew up hearing about. At my first fast food job, my checks frequently came up short, the schedule often changed without notice, and my supervisors could have found fault with Christ Himself should He have decided to pick up a shift. In retaliation, my breaks gradually got longer, and the amount of work I accomplished while on the clock was minimal. When the school year resumed, I offered my two-weeks notice, and they fired me on the spot. I grabbed my jacket and filled the pockets full of cookie dough to eat on the way home. I had always walked to work, as my mother needed the car to get to her job, and Lamar refused to learn to drive. When I asked why, he responded with anger and accusations of intentional disrespect. I found that the best questions were those that remained unanswered.
The next job I held was in a failing wing joint in the far corner of a rundown mall. I began work three days after the initial interview with no paperwork filed. The head manager bought the place from the prior owner only a month before, and he wasted no time running the company into the ground. His first order of business was to stop selling alcohol altogether. Our Savior wouldn’t serve booze, he reasoned, and so neither would we. The attached area for bar seating was decorated with approximately ten neon beer signs, advertising all the wonderful things our customers couldn’t buy. Thus it became my job to stand behind the bar and explain that we didn’t actually serve beer, our manager just thought the signs looked nice, and that he refused to turn them off. To combat the inevitable sales drop, my boss had hired a man with a steel drum to play along to instrumental Peter Tosh songs that crackled from a cheap stereo in the main dining area. The drummer was hired for three hours every Wednesday, though he had only enough material to get through one hour. I quit on a Tuesday evening.
I never complained of these things at home. There everyone talked, but no one listened. Lamar must have come to the same conclusion; over the years, his speeches transitioned from sermons to self-therapy. One night, as we sat in the kitchen, he spoke of the respect he had for my mother’s father, who had threatened to kill him, should he ever hurt my mother. In his next breath, he told me that he no longer found enjoyment in fucking his wife. We sat side by side at that table and were both alone.
Near the end of my high school days, any sense of cohesion between family members was worn down to nothing more than passing fancy, something that was more often the byproduct of a mutual dislike than any actual connection. The ties that held my brothers and me together were a bit stronger, though not by much. I spent as little time as I could around the house, but I kept a Nokia brick in my pocket on the rare chance that Jeremy or David would need something. I refused to look for a job.
The call came through on an evening indistinguishable from most others. A group of us were down by the train tracks in the middle of town, and I was puffing cigarettes to impress a girl that had smoked since middle school. The house phone number flashed on the screen. I answered, and my mother’s voice broke the static. I braced myself for her usual reprimands, but there was no frustration in her voice. She ignored my adversarial tone. Within a few sentences both hatred and reverence reinforced our bond. I rushed home.
The last time I saw my stepfather was through the rear window of a police cruiser. He never turned to face me. The officer asked if I had anything to say to him, but I could spare no words. By the time they left, the blood on my mother’s face was dry. The four of us that remained stood together on the lawn. We were unsure of what was to happen next. The neighbors took their noses from their blinds. I was the man of the house, and I had never felt more like a child.