This is part II of a special Memorial Day post about the veterans who have touched my life. I dedicate today’s post to “Willy”
Beginning in the mid 1970’s, I began to notice that my mother had a sex life. Being a single mother must have been a lonely life. As her eight-year old guardian I looked at her dating from an altogether different perspective. She was not loose or a tramp and I could probably count the number of boyfriends my mom had during my childhood on one hand. She rarely dated, but when she did I gave her hell for it. No relative wanted to babysit me when my mother was on a date. I would cry and spend the evening standing at the window waiting for her to come home. Occasionally, there were times when she did not. Sleeping all night with your head on a cold window sill is not the best way to cope with separation anxiety…even if your grandmother does stick a pillow underneath you. It was not long before my mother got with the program. All dates must be chaperoned by little Afrocity. I mean how many times did I have to tell her that she cannot be trusted to be on her own?
Okay, so the boyfriends were pissed. Mother used my protective streak as a litmus test. If Afrocity liked him. He was good. The problem was that my mother and I had totally different taste in men. I would go for the older 50-ish father types (surprise, surprise). She would go for the types that walked on four legs. During the summer of 1977, my mother was dating another male of the canine persuasion.
His name was James. Now to be fair, James was not necessarily a dog. He was a loser. But to my mother, he had a job as a mechanic which meant he was not a loser. When you are on welfare anyone with a job is not a loser. Her daughter had higher standards however, and to me James was a loser who drove a beat up navy blue Oldsmobile, had bad teeth and lived with his mother, two sisters, her three kids, and his brother Willy. This story is dedicated to Willy.
My job as chaperon was an interesting one. Sometimes it meant trips to the drive in movies, other times it meant going to a nice restaurant. The there was the proverbial “win over the kid” date to the circus. Despite the yucky guys, I would at least get a good time out of it. However, in her avoidance of loneliness, mother would occasionally take the “no date” route. Very much sleeping together and very little dating. James was definitely a trip on route friends with benefits. Sure they had one initial date but the following dates were not dates at all unless you want to count going over to his building code violating multiple family brownstone and having sex. I don’t call that a date. My mom did and like a good chaperon I followed.
James’ family was strange. About fifteen family members lived in this dwelling with certain parts of the family living in apartments. In the basement garden apart was his sister Jeanie. She was pathetic and had four kids–all by the same married man. Her kids were nice enough. Kim, her oldest was 9 years old and had a pretty face but she was about 150lbs. Then there was Dion and Leon, a pair of fraternal twins. Finally there was a baby whose name I cannot remember who was about one. Having other kids provided entertainment for me so I tolerated them. Jeanie as also pregnant again by the same married man who came to visit her on Saturday night to have sex throw her a twenty dollar bill and leave.
On the first floor was James mother Pam. I remember her as being a nice woman who loved my mom and thought she would make a nice wife for James. I forgave her for that lapse in sanity. Her fireplace mantel had become a shrine for family portraits and milk glass. She was also into velvet art. The first floor was also occupied by Leigh and Kevin. They were also fraternal twins of about 27 (guess it ran in the family) and had obviously not left the nest.
James had the entire 2nd floor to himself. Quite frankly the only thing I can remember about it was the iron post pre-war looking bed. The bed that he slept with my mother in. The bed with the plain dingy white sheets that covered my mother’s nudity once when I walked in on them. It was after midnight and I wanted to go home. I knew that she was someplace in the dump. The hallway was dark but I could see a light from under the doorway. Mother never cared when I walked in on her at home, why would it be different now? I was utterly mistaken. Of course James cursed at me and told me to shut the @*&#@ door. I just stood there. Sleeping with my mother did not give him parental rights over me. Afrocity’s orders come from high above or under the sheets depending on how one looked at it.
“We need to go home it is late. I fell asleep downstairs on the sofa.” I informed her. “I want to be in a bed.”
And a bed I got. Down in the basement with Jeanie and her four kids. Yes little Afrocity stuffed between a sweaty obese pre-teen, two fraternal twins and a one year old baby- all in one full sized bed, in my underwear. The things I go through for my mother. As many nights as I would endured this, there was not one night that I slept the entire way through which brings me to the third floor of the brownstone and Willy, the focus of my story.
Willy was James’ older brother. He was an alcoholic. By the way, Willy was really his name. I know that seems rather cliche to have a drunk named Willy but it was short for “William” so that is what we called him. Willy lived on the very top 3rd floor all by himself. I was instructed never to speak to Willy. These were direct orders from mother. Willy’s alcoholism did not sit well with my mother. He was sort of a loose cannon, cursing at Chicago police cars as they drove by. In the morning you could find either Willy or his bottles of malt liqueur on the concrete porch. But something bothered my mother more, something else about Willy that was entirely prejudiced on her part. Willy was not only an alcoholic, he was also a recently returned Vietnam veteran. Being 1977, the memories of the Vietnam War were still raw as well as anti-war sentiments against the soldier’s. Vietnam vets are often “shell shocked” she would tell me. “They are crazy and they rape little girls…Stay away from Willy…See how he drinks?”
All of it really made no sense to me since my brother would come home from the army and he was perfectly sane still. There was the matter of Uncle Fred and Gavin. Willy seemed perfectly harmless to me. His face was kind, his complexion was a golden brown and unmarred. Standing at 6 foot 3, he was like a gentle alcoholic giant.
For the most part, I listened to my mother’s warnings and stayed away from Willy until one day, he gave me money for candy when I was sitting bored on Pam’s sofa waiting for my mother to finish having sex, fighting or whatever she was doing upstairs with James. Willy just came over to me and handed me a silver dollar. He smiled, “There is a corner store on Homan Ave.” I was hesitant at first, but his big brown eyes made me feel safe. Mother never said I could not take money from a Vietnam soldier. One silver dollar could buy a load of candy back then and I came back to the sofa loaded with chips and caramels, Mello Yellow soda pop.
The candy was great and sweet, it was that guilt tummy ache afterward… I told myself that it was only the one time. The only trouble was it would not only be the one time. Willy would see me and give me a silver dollar seven more times. Five of those times, he came to me while I was playing or it was in my dolly purse when I woke up. The final two times, it was I who sought out Willy on the 3rd floor, the place my mother had instructed me not to go. It was not a question of my disobedience, it just happened. All of Jeanie’s kids were sleeping in the basement. We were one big sweaty mass of brown skin. Arms, legs, and a pacifier in my face. July was the height of summer in Chicago and the un-air conditioned brownstone. I sat up in the bed as much as one could with four other kids there. With no headboard , I could only lean my head against the wall. I was beginning to think this chaperoning my mother was a bad idea until I was startled by something crawly running down my face. Frantically slapping at it, I screamed jumping out of the bed and stepped on the one year old’s head, which made him cry, which made me afraid that I would get into trouble, which made me run from the garden apartment, upstairs to the 2nd floor where my mother was with James with the door shut. James was decoratively inclined enough to have a carpet fragment in front of his door, my intention was to sit there in my underwear and wait till morning.
I awoke to something different, the smell of crackling bacon and singing. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” was on the record player. I was in a strange bed. This I knew because it was a lot bigger an cleaner than the one in the basement. The window had no curtains which allowed me to see the Eisenhower expressway, the same view from Pam’s apartment only higher up. This meant I was Willy’s apartment. Slowly moving from the bed I followed the bacon smell into the kitchen, passing one of those black cat clocks with the moving eyes and tail. It said 9-ish. Willy had the table set with Dessert Rose plates, there were three plates on the table along with beautiful silverware. I walked up to the table when Willy saw me. He was cracking brown eggs.
“You fell asleep on the job soldier.”
I was about to speak when the reason for the additional place setting stumbled into the room. It was some floozy woman with a bad Diana Ross Mahogany styled wig on her head which was turned sort of sideways. She wore a red nylon negligee and plopped down at the table.
“Who is she?” the woman asked. “I thought you ain’t got no kids”
“I don’t. ” Willy answered. “Just shut up and eat there ain’t nothing to be jealous of.”
I slid into a chair and ate my bacon and fried eggs. Scrambled was the way I preferred them with cheese melted on top. Willy never asked me how I liked my eggs and I was too unfamiliar to be rude enough to ask. The woman ate like a horse, sopping up the egg yolk with bread (something I have never understood to this day). Leaving a clean plate, she went down the long railroad hallway disappearing into the bathroom. Willy took up the plates.
“Those are pretty plates,” I said shyly.
He looked at the plate in his hand. “They belonged to my grand mammy.” He looked at me. “Want to see something?”
Without letting me answer, he went to the pantry dragging a big noisy army green cloth duffel bag behind him. He loosened the drawstrings. Inside was dishes and silverware. Old tarnished silverware. We sat and looked at the different patterns. He told me that some was from the slave master’s house. Stuff his relatives had stolen when they were set free. One piece in particular caught my fancy. A tiny teaspoon that was gold with tulips on the handle.
“You want it?” Willy asked me. I shook my head. I could not take things from strangers especially Vietnam vets without my mother’s permission.
“Go on, take it.” Willy set the teaspoon in hand. Bashful, I got up and walked around the kitchen. I wanted to know how he came up with so many silver dollars so I asked him. That brought out a smaller army green bag. This one was filled with silver dollars. To me it looked like millions. I would later find out it was a little over 300. “Wow, you are rich.” I proclaimed. Why couldn’t my mom be with Willy instead of James. So he is an alcoholic but he is nice and has money. I had just stuck my hand in the bag of dollars when a loud knock was at the door. Willy left me in the kitchen holding the bag of coins. It was my mother. I could hear her cursing all the way down the hallway. This brought out the floozy who asked “Who the fuck is she?”
There I was in the kitchen of a crazy war vet, in my panties and tee shirt. My mom was furiously calling Willy all kinds of perverts. He called her a “neglectful bitch”. I could not argue with that. She carried me out and home on the subway. We would not see James for a few weeks after that which was fine by me. But I missed Willy and wanted to go back.
I had an agenda which served my mother well. She was lonely and in someways I was making her feel that it was okay to be weak and crawl back to him. My wish was granted and soon I was back at the brownstone but things were different this time around. I would stay in Willy’s pad. Unorthodox as it sounds, I was actually in better hands at his place than I ever was downstairs in Jeanie’s house of adultery. Soon mom warmed to Willy because he gave her silverware too. They would talk about James and how he should keep my mother because “she was a good woman”. If I developed amnesia surrounding James the loser, I could live with that. His family was growing on me- sort of.
Summer was coming to an end but Willy’s drinking was not. That August, I had my eighth birthday party at Pam’s place. Willy was barbecuing outside. He called it a beer recipe but he drank most of the ingredients. Burnt ribs was a crime punishable by hanging for some, especially my mom who spent most f our food stamps on the food. Willy passed out in a rattan chair. Well at least the cake and ice cream was good.
Pam stood over the chair and looked at her drunken son. “I wish he had stayed home but they would not let him.” Pam meant Vietnam. “He ain’t never been the same since he come back home. Drinking and carrying on. I told him to take advantage of those loans and get a house or go to school but that devil’s poison won’t get you no damn place but in the ground.”
On the way home, mother manipulated the situation to give me yet another tirade against Vietnam vets. “They drink and sometimes kill their wives when they come home…”
I didn’t care what she had to say. I liked Willy and my uncle Gavin was a alcoholic too so there.
The next time we went to the brownstone, Willy was not there. The apartment door was locked. No sound, no light underneath the door. They told me he went on a trip “down south”. That’s funny I thought, “down south” is where black kids go during the summer when their parents get sick of them. Two more weeks went by and no Willy. By mid September, mother and James broke up for good. I would not see the brownstone again. Maybe I could call them, but mother would not let me. I still had my teaspoon and the other silverware from Willy but I had given up.
One night in November, the doorbell rang. It was Jeanie and James. Willy had died the month before of pneumonia and liver failure. They did not come to tell my mother. They came to tell me because Willy had left me the bag of silver dollars. Over 300 silver dollars.
“Willy would go to the bank and ask for them when he got his vet check.” Jeanie explained. “He knew he was dying and said to give the bag to Afrocity. We didn’t even know he had it. To tell the truth I was angry because he could have given it to my kids but I ain’t about cross my brother…I don’t want that on me, you know?”
The adults all looked at me. I felt bad for Willy. The dollars seemed stupid now.
James showed us pictures from the funeral. It was a military funeral, open casket. In the Polaroid, there Willy was dead and pale. It was true. I will never forget him. Yes, I knew him for only four months but Willy is among my top ten people who have made a positive impact on my life. I would never be prejudiced against a war veteran again.
As for the silver dollars, my mom took me to First National Bank of Chicago where I opened my first bank account and bought a savings bond. She was good about letting me waste the money on myself. She never asked for a dime of it. I wish I could tell you that I still have the golden teaspoon. Three evictions will cost you your dignity and belongings. The teaspoon was lost in an abandoned storage facility so I have nothing left of Willy but the memories.
I wanted to give him life today by telling you this story.
Thank you. Happy Memorial Day
Autographed Letter Signed,