Feasts Beneath the Cottonwood Tree
“I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over this wondrous world.
I am circling around God; around the
ancient towers and I have been circling for
a thousand years. And. I still don’t know if
I am an eagle or a storm or a great song.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The ongoing sickness that was at the center of our world…he and I…went unnoticed by my family, and even my grandmother for many years. I do not recall when exactly, but as he and my grandmother did not sleep in the same bed, one evening as he proceeded to keep me awake with his touches, I yelled, ” Stop it, Papa”, and from the adjoining room, I could hear lily grandmother’s shrill little voice say, “Daddy, you leave that baby alone!” After that night, I slept with my grandmother whenever I was to stay the night with them, but he could not leave that baby alone. Nothing could ever stop his obsession with me or the money that he began to pump into the fire that would eventually consume me.
This was a long time ago, sure, and he was a sick man, yes, and I must pick myself up and forget about those things, —I agree entirely—but this attitude fails to fully realize the damage that had already been done to me and my understanding of love, sex, and money. Life’s three biggest beasts. What happened during those years in Nixon’s early 70s was made even more opaque and taboo because it was shrouded from public view. It was our deep and silent secret that lined my pockets with silver dollars and kept my cigar box stacked high with dollar bills. I quickly learned the power of money and just what it could buy. It would not be until much, much later, in my late 20s, would I also realize, just what it had stolen.
In 1991, my second year of architecture school, I began to experience these crippling panic attacks as the sun would set over Providence while I sat watching atop College Hill—my alabaster city, set ablaze by the sinking sun. It was a language I did not understand, these sickening Sunday spells that would later reveal just why I felt such uncontrollable desire on these days: Sunday, my sin day. It was like the enormous gravitational pull from a celestial body that revealed the powerful force he still maintained on me, 7 years in his grave, 2000 miles away. He was a fabulous gilded moon, and I was his earth.
Sundays are significant because, as a large, close, Christian family, we all gathered on my grandparents’ lawn at Sunday lunch. We ate picnic-style around the many tables spread out beneath a huge cottonwood tree, next to a giant yucca that was a harbor for wasps under the heat of our Texas sun and the constant burning stench of a creosote plant a hundred yards away. It was a smell that would define the experiences of those many years and bring to life certain events whenever I now pass a plant burning the black tar of spent hydrocarbon. Memory and desire. Maybe they are same.
Cousins, Aunts, and Uncles. All Walkers. All offspring of these two old country people, Ollie and Benjiman Walker, all sleepwalking among the eerie silence of the children and their broken joys.
They had seven children all together. One died at the hands of one of my uncles in a terrible gun accident. You could see the death of the uncle I never met in his eyes throughout his life. He was a man with deep lines etched into his face that echoed the secrets he carried and that later, his father and I would carry. Those secrets killed him. I know this. He was as cold and as hardened a man as you could ever meet. He was not unkind, just remote and unreachable…the kind of man who could sit for hours, never speaking a word, never seeing a color or hearing a song. Then one day, while at my graduation party in 1994, one of my “painterly” monotype prints I had done for a class in 1991 opened a channel between the two of us. He was hypnotized by it. It was large and red…a fiery mix of yellow and bold gestures and he could not believe I had made it. He preferred the solitude of stain glass and spent many years of his retirement assembling the tiny, colorful pieces he placed into many doors and windows. He had not had two words to say to me until that day, and every time he spoke to me after, he always asked about my painting. He died just before I came to prison. They called him “Brother.” His name was Leo Richard Walker. My father’s oldest Brother. Uncle Pat to me. The disease in this family ran deep and survived many generations before it landed beside me. This brother was just the first of its victims.
His sister, My aunt Oleta—Deda, as I called her—was the second oldest child of the bunch. Oleta Lucille Walker. A breathtaking and glamorous beauty. Erudite and sophisticated. She worshipped me, and I her. On Monday mornings, she would arrive early to clean my grandparents’ house, self-propelled Hoover and Kent Kings in tow. I would be waiting, as always, under the shining diamond eyes of a black panther my grandfather kept on a ledge over the entry. I often wonder what happened to that black, glass cat and whom he watches now. Anyway, I would be on the step—just inside the door, watching through the screen for that wedge wood blue Grand Am, with Rally wheels to announce itself on the gravel side of the road. Then, cleared for takeoff, I would burst through the front door, running down the sidewalk to leap into her safe embrace and bury my head in her scent and softness. I clung to her like a monkey to his mother in the wild and she to me. It is all I can remember about her in those early days of my childhood, her scent and her softness. A mix of Jergens, cherry and almond hand lotion and the old scented Puffs Tissues she kept with her and in her car. That was her scent. Angel she called me, Angel. I was her Angel. And she was mine. Once in her sight, nothing could harm me. I could fly high above the clouds. I was an Angel, fleeing a devilish hell and it was her wings that kept us aloft after the fall.
Her laughter would erupt from the side of her mouth and she would throw her head back. Probably a move she borrowed from Lana Turner or maybe Eva Gardner. She loved them both, and I am sure, some of them both lived in her. I was the same way later in life. People would just show up in me, without warning, I would be suddenly moving and walking like my fifth year design critic, Friedrich St. Florian or like my sophomore critic, Javier Navarro, pointing and moving and pushing my glasses up like one of them. Pretending to see the world around me like they did. Or to at least have you believe I was able to see this deeply. It was as though they would inhabit us. We would borrow these parts of others we wanted to integrate into our burgeoning composites; that warehouse of spare and broken parts that together would make our machines hum. I still think that borrowing a cup of sugar or even money is easier, but we were constructs, borrowed pieces, superglued together, walking a jagged edge.
Her beauty was a mystery to me. She was petit and perfect and sat up as straight as the East Texas pines that filled the forest near the small mill town they were raised in. Trinity, Texas. Trinity. The Union of God the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, as in three persons in one Godhead. I also think that the Sunday Feast after Whitsunday is a Trinity. The Sunday Feast after Whitsunday. The Sunday Feast Under the Cottonwood Tree. The newly baptized wearing white robes. So many signs, even in those early days of what was to come. I would be wearing white, yes, but not robes after these Whitsundays. I think about this often, I am just a stone’s throw from this small town now. The same East Texas Pines stand up to the sky, pointing solemnly, searching the face of the sun, and I search with them now.
This prison is located in the next town over. Huntsville, Texas. It is the central nervous system for the largest prison system in the world. There are more than 150,000 men and women locked up in this state. I am number 1455333. The one millionth, four hundred fifty five thousandth, three hundred thirty third person to be locked up in this state, and my number is 7 years old. The number is at 1,900,000 now…”one nines” they are called.
Anyway, her beauty and her voice, the way she spoke, she must have studied the movies of the Goddesses to form herself. She was hypnotic to me. A dream. A dream from which I never wanted to awake or wander. She was the essence of beauty and brilliance and for a small town girl, amazingly progressive and tolerant of those of us who did not have tidy, publicly approved selves. Those of us that existed at the margins of society, or at the dimly lighted sign-less gathering places with the others who burned when the sun went down.
I always knew that something was not quite right about the way she spoke to her father and the way he would act when she was around, the way he would cower before this beautiful creature. She knew something was going on with Papa and me, and she had a tongue on her. She was as swift and mean as any chained up, thirsty yard dog in the rainless August heat, watching the cars speed by, leash pulled tight against the tree. Beauty can be savage and ours was a thousand times more savage than a butterfly’s cage. She would look at him and speak to him like a cobra spitting at his tamer, taunting him to do or say the wrong thing or get too close to me. She would strike and all hell would break loose, and he would make a tear for the back yard shed until she and her Hoover Self-Propelled left until the next day when she would return to take my grandmother to see Flo. Flo did her hair every Tuesday. It was a tall, blue-gray tower, all bobby pins and Alberto VO5. Style-less and stylish all in one. This went on for 20 or 30 years. That is the way things were back then…it was safe and predictable. Time was measured in tradition and ritual and you did not discuss what the old man did to the young children. But there was always next Sunday and the Feast beneath the Cottonwood tree. I would be there as would the others. We were a good, Christian family and it was tradition. We did not talk about what the old man did to the young children.
He was filthy and dirty and had piss stains on his khakis. Both pairs. And his black shoes matched his black belt, and those matched his black framed, Buddy Holly glasses. And they were held up under a nose that was slathered back on his face after a sawmill accident. It all sat crooked on his drooping face. The tobacco gathered in his teeth at times, and I would cringe when he would try and kiss me with this black, seething, stinking mess dripping down his shirt. Papa. Daddy. Benjamin Milam Walker. I was his play pretty.
Christmas Day 1984 would come, as would the news that he had departed this earth. He was dead. He had been ill after suffering a series of small strokes that left him a vegetable. His lopsided face was a pouty, vacant lot of pain. He still wore the khaki pants and black shoes, but they were both in a nursing home now. Withering the indignities of the old for what they did to the young. There was no innocence in this family. No Escape.
I wonder in recalling this, if the venom with which my aunt regarded him was because she too was once one of his ” Play Pretties” as he loved to call the many toys he would buy me. Play Pretties. Balsa wood airplanes, plastic battleships, and flying boats. I loved them most. Flying boats. I was full of contradictions, even at 6 years old, when I would sit for hours assembling these models, with nary a glance at the instructions, assembling the tiny pieces as though I had designed the vessels myself. Instinct and intuition colliding before me. My tiny hands and head absorbed in distraction even then.
But yes, 1984—the year he died. My sister and I were both high when the call came in. We had not gone to “be with” Papa. We remained alone, together, avoiding his gropes as he lay, waiting for hell to collect his soul.
She is two years younger than I, but no more innocent. If I was 18, she had been 16. He had gotten to her too, but since she was a girl, I guess, she did not have to sleep with Papa. But I was sent to stay with him and stay with him I did, and he with me, until he died and then I died. It was for this reason I never had any children. The curse, I vowed would end with me. If there was a curse, I would not perpetuate it any further for the sake of tradition or ritual, even if we were a good Christian family. The Walker name, and the curses and sins of the father ended here. It would end me too, though. But the price, however costly to myself, would prevent another generation of Walker children from paving roads in Hell and seeing their offspring wither and fail before the spring of their bloom.
Delma Eu, My father. The baby. He was born in the year of the great stock market crash of 1929. It would have been December 22nd of that miserable year. Just 3 days before Christmas and 9 before the new decade.
He is the last one left of the seven now. It is he and I in our own legacy. We are rewriting the story. We are listening to each other. He to my story and me to his. It is our story now. Our life.
He is 83. Still young for a Walker. They have all lived past 90 and even to 98. But the weight of his burden later in life was crippling. He never killed a brother, never drank to excess, never became hard or unreachable, but he bore the brunt of two decades of my rage and the undoing of his family and the world he had built. Like me, he is caught between the world he thought he would inherit, and the one he got…