A Night in Watts
My brother Eddie would knock back a plate of food like a cowboy did a shot of whisky. On a night when Mama wanted everyone out of the house and out of her hair, Daddy took the four of us kids to Taco Bell. Before Daddy ran out of money, Eddie clocked in at eleven tacos.
Daddy later reported this new record to Mama. “Maybe it’s puberty.”
“That ain’t it,” she said. “You’re just now noticin’. You shoulda ordered then left. Stay long enough, he’ll eat us bankrupt.”
For days Daddy scrutinized Eddie’s dietary intake, scratching his head and taking notes. “I’d really like to take him to one of them eat-all-you-want places,” he told me one night after Eddie vacuumed the dinner table with his face. “But I know your mother’d never go for that; she’d get all embarrassed.”
The dishes had been cleared, bodies now planted in front of the TV, and I was still at the table doing my elementary homework, as well as Daddy, still in CHP uniform, doing his thinking.
He was right. Mama would never encourage Eddie’s gluttony, nor would she consent to witness it in that endless manner. I would’ve loved nothing more, however, than to exploit Eddie’s vulgarity for my own personal gain as the perfect child.
Daddy said he discovered The Smorgasbord during his patrols of Watts, an undesirable area of L.A. that he said, “ain’t for the lily livered.” His patrol partner gave him the lowdown: pay one price and eat all you want.
The thrill of this mysterious eating establishment sent me into a tizzy. “Trick her,” I blurted. “Use her birthday as an excuse, anything.”
The birthday clue went right past him, so “anything” it was. Daddy timed his eating research around his other research: automobile lifespan—ours in particular. Our station wagon was reaching its one-hundred-thousandth mile. Daddy recorded the wagon’s every new milestone, tire and oil change, and breakdown. What he overlooked in his planner was his second clue: Reba’s birthday—written in his own writing. The realization finally occurred to him when I asked for some wrapping paper.
I guided him to the Elvis Presley wall calendar on which I had drawn the number thirty in hearts. “Well, by golly,” he said, “you’re right. It is her birthday.”
For most women, turning thirty produced an Elvis caliber lip snarl. Not Mama. She said she couldn’t wait to ditch her twenties and enter into a respectable age bracket, one where it was less noticeable, less shocking, to have four kids, the oldest fifteen. She was pregnant with Russ when she was fifteen herself, where, in Oklahoma, in our old neck of the woods, that was considered normal. Not in California, not in the ’60s. And certainly not normal or even legal to be married at that age. I saw her cringe every time she was assumed to be our sister.
“Where’d you get money for her present?” Daddy asked, gazing at the fuzzy, pink, dead animal foot in my hand. He was usually my main source of income.
“Leftover from Beth’s bra,” I answered. He tapped his pen on his planner, gave me a quizzical look then walked back over to the calendar to scratch his chin. He turned to me looking to be in a state of conflict between birthday panic and the bra comment.
Earlier that day, Mama had done laundry and discovered thirteen-year-old Beth’s discolored, stretched-out training bra with worn straps. She handed Beth a ten-dollar bill. “Get yourself a bra. And take Patty.” It was an “everybody wins” outing: Beth got to shop; I got to go with her, and Mama got rid of us both for a while.
At Montgomery Ward’s major underwear event, bras disappeared faster than food in front of Eddie. It was imperative Beth get a discounted bra or there wouldn’t be enough money left over to get Mama birthday presents—using Mama’s money of course.
“36B,” Beth whispered to me. “Look for 36B.” She took cover on one side of the bin and me on the other.
“B, B, 36B. B, B, 36B.” It began with a focused chant, then I belted into a loud cheer, which grew into a louder song: Jackson Five’s “ABC” rendition, of sorts. Beth was too far to slap my hand or to pinch me, so I carried on.
At mid-chorus, she stomped around to my side looking severe. “Shh! This is my private information you’re broadcasting to the world.”
Meanwhile, several women, who apparently had good hearing, located her size and offered their findings to Beth, “Here, I think you’re looking for this.” And at such a discount we netted a decent profit for birthday shopping. But I got no thanks from Beth.
For Mama I chose a pretty, pink lucky-rabbit’s foot that no doubt would complete her life—which I later kept for idol worship. Beth’s present to her was a cheese grater.
From their own funds, Russ got her cigarettes and Eddie got her a taco. Daddy got her nothing and was looking nervous about it. “I suppose I could say the restaurant is for her birthday.”
I stared at him.
“Did you already tell her why we’re going out?” he asked.
“Whew.” He mocked wiping sweat off his forehead. “You’re the smartest. Did I ever tell you that?” He hadn’t.
We piled into the car for the grand three-o dinner celebration. Beginning with an odometer reading of 999988 and with the restaurant ten L.A. freeway plus two city miles away, the car’s milestone would arrive just short of the restaurant, in the heart of Watts. At night, such as it was on this multi-festive occasion, Watts could be very very hazardous. So after we exited the 105 freeway onto Central Blvd, heading for that lawless circle of hell that only naïve officers transplanted from safer states dared to patrol, I felt the ominous descent akin to dropping below the earth’s core.
Drug deals and prostitutes were open and flaunted. Brightly lit stores with signs that advertized “Open all nite” “Adults Only” “Rooms Hourly rate” solicited the wide billboard-dotted boulevard.
Stoplights were tense. We kept our windows rolled up and doors locked, and we sat tight and waited for green lights, viewing the scene like it was a drive-thru safari while the animals strutted around the car in hopes for a buyer of their wares or services.
“Tell me again why you wanted to kill us all on my birthday?” Mama said.
“Now Reba,” Daddy said. “Have a positive attitude. No use in sending the wrong message by being judgmental.” She responded by snapping her head the other way in a huff, bouncing her crossed leg up and down nervously.
Russ, being the largest, had front seat privileges. He sat by the passenger door with his arms folded across his chest. He scowled and sent “dare ya” vibes to the street predators. A hulking man in tight fitting short shorts, a red halter top, and red platform shoes sashayed to Russ’s side of the window and tapped on the glass. Russ jumped with a start. “Faggot!” he yelled—window up of course. Mama jabbed him with her elbow and spoke harshly of his flirting with our deaths. Russ straightened, chest out, smiling at the receding middle finger the transvestite displayed to him as we moved on.
Nothing eventful happened at the next light, but Eddie was looking for any target for Russ to provoke. “Check it out! Check it out!” he kept saying. He pointed and yelled and got himself all worked up while Mama held Russ’s little finger hostage, threatening to rip it off if he did one more thing. Then she told Eddie she was making Daddy pull over and we would kick him to the curb if he didn’t pipe down. He needed reminded a few times but he finally calmed, and I could’ve sworn Beth looked pale in disappointment at the fading abandonment opportunities. I for one was already divvying his stuff.
By the next light, I was feeling pretty grateful that we just might get through this unscathed. But a motorcycle pulled up next to us whose rider happened to be one and the same “Faggot” we encountered a few minutes earlier. He revved his engine and Russ looked over and jerked like he’d just been shocked by a low-voltage wire. “Step on it!” he yelled. “He’s after us.”
Daddy bent his head down to get a look out Russ’s window. I saw a mixture of concern and amusement creep over his face. I mean, after all, how menacing could the man be if he wore red platform shoes? He looked even more outrageous on the bike. His hairy belly fat spilled over the top of his shorts, shorts that looked like an exploded biscuit tube with doughy thighs oozing from the hemline. His bleached-blond wig tucked between his legs. But Russ must have differed in his opinion of scary for he lost his cocky attitude and replaced it with an extreme urgency to leave.
“Blast through the light. Hustle. Go!”
Silly Russ. In his mindless panic, he forgot who was driving. Daddy followed all driving laws to the letter. His hands were at the nine and three position on the wheel at all times. He drove the speed limit and never higher. And he waited a full three seconds after the light turned green before accelerating. Even now, with an angry transvestite threatening our lives—I pictured him dragging us out by the hair, one by one, and stomping us with his platforms, cracking my head open and leaving us all to die—Daddy still waited three seconds, his head making its rounds slowly from side to side to ensure no light runners were coming to plow us down.
Russ whimpered and moaned like he’d just stubbed his toe and was trying to be quiet about it. And when Daddy finally got the car moving again, a sound shook the car, and Russ let it rip. He shrieked like it was a permissible release of a long suppressed scream, like a restored voice after clogged airwaves; he screamed like a woman. Daddy burst through the intersection trying to get away from it and nearly sideswiped a few cars and ran the next light (sinful, indeed, and very unhighway patrolman like), braked hard, then accelerated, then braked again. The car lunged and jerked all over the road. He didn’t know whether to stop or go and finally pulled into a well-lit parking lot and checked to see if any of us was hurt.
“What’s the fuss about?” Beth asked. “Why’s everyone so frantic?”
“That explosion … didn’t you hear it?” Russ screeched.
“I heard a scream,” Daddy interjected.
“I wanna go home,” Mama said.
“Explosion? Hear it?” Beth leaned back, smiling. “I made it.”
“You? You did that?” Russ said.
“Sure did. And better than Eddie, I might add.”
Eddie loved to burp; it was his gift. He shared his gift daily, and we were numb to it. He could register these burp quakes on the Richter scale—followed by a few major aftershocks of equal intensity.
We were thunderstruck by her eruption, or gun blast depending on whom you asked. Beth lowering herself to competitive burping was shocking. But Eddie’s speechlessness was equally spell bounding: His mouth gaped open, yet he was noiseless. Not Mama. She was chewing the insides of her cheeks, lighting a cigarette with shaking hands. “Next year,” she said, exhaling, “I want a ticket for one …”
“Dagnabbit, Beth!” Daddy yelled. “You could’ve caused an accident.”
“… make that a one way ticket …”
“All I did was burp; Eddie never gets in trouble for that.”
“… somewhere quiet, no kids …”
“You have a point, but that … what you did was so—”
“Awesome!” Eddie interrupted, having found his voice. “How did you do that? Did it hurt?”
“A little. My throat burned and my ears tickled,” explained Beth, “but sometimes you need a reminder that whatever you can do, I can do better.”
Mama mumbled on incoherently while Eddie rocked back and forth repeating his question, “How did she…?”
“Dadgummit!” Daddy yelled—obviously forgotten his brush with The White Light. The odometer read 100001.
We reached the restaurant at 100002, ready for more adventure. Mama said she’d wait in the car, but Daddy coaxed her in and promised her he’d never take her to Watts again. She must have forgiven his comment since, after she hit him, she came inside.
Once we were seated, the server took our drink orders and gave us dining instructions. Eddie was eager to prove his eating merit. Mama shot I’ll-get-revenge rays at Daddy, who was waiting for it and deflected it with a bellowing laugh that could rattle windows. “Let ‘em go, woman, for just one night. Let the boy eat himself silly; he won’t die.”
Mama huffed, and folded her arms Russ-hostile style. Russ abandoned the tough guy look for the night and sat slumped in the booth.
Still unsure of ourselves, we sat a few minutes longer, looking around, gathering data, determining the proper procedure. But Eddie was so antsy, squirming in his seat, waiting for the starting gate to open, Mama waved her hand in defeat and said “Go” and he shot off like a scud-missile. He seized a few plates and heaped with no placement restrictions whatsoever. Pie touched mashed potatoes, which touched spaghetti, whose sauce invaded the enchiladas. He’d wolf it down and return for the helpings he may have missed the first go-around and all before I came back to the table with my first plate—which contained only one thing at a time.
“Pace yourself, sweat hog!” Mama yelled as he pillaged the buffet. “You’re making me dizzy.”
From the kitchen side of the swinging door, faces squeezed together in the square window to view what they must’ve thought was a locust swarm destroying everything in its path. Besides Daddy, the only other person keeping score was the owner, who was likely thinking bankruptcy.
When the buffet was utterly obliterated, Eddie, gleaming at the emotional response to his untapped talent, leaned back and burped words previously unheard from his vocabulary.
“No, you’re a fool,” Beth corrected.
“You’re just jealous,” Eddie said in his non-burp voice, smiling his double-mint smile.
Beth griped often the injustice of his ability to eat and never gain weight. She looked down at her salad and Jell-O and decided her glass of water needed spilling on Eddie’s lap.
Meanwhile, I too suffered various resentments pertaining to my not having a single virtuous physical attribute and glared at Eddie’s perfect teeth, teeth I was hell-bent on knocking out. But we were too refined for such public displays of violence. Instead, my chocolate pudding accidentally spilled alongside Beth’s water, and they both landed Splash, Glop onto his lap. Russ came alive again and was about to join in with his spoon of ice cream—in a cock-loaded position, ready to flick—when Mama jumped up and bonked us all on the head with her purse. “Y’all actin’ crazier than sprayed roaches.” Other diners hearing “roaches” looked around their tables and on the floor. “I can’t take you primitive goats anywhere.”
Probably some truth to that.
Daddy stopped by Montgomery Ward on the way home and bought Mama a birthday present: a new wooden spoon to replace the one she would split over Eddie’s head.