“Six.” MCC Literary Review (2006): 9-11. First Place Award, Community Short Story Division.
“Look here, son, I don’t think Grandfather meant to upset you so,” father says. “He only knows the old ways.”
I’d been slouched over the front edge of my bed, trying to blend in, trying to sink into the bed so no one could see me. I was fully dressed for the blessed event when father called upstairs to see if I was ready to go. I jumped to attention and wiped tears from both cheeks with the backs of my hands, transferring the wetness to the bedspread tucked beneath my pillow. I’d answered, “Yes, father,” in my best voice but before I could add anything else, he’d bounded up the stairs, taking two or three at a time, and crossed the landing to my room. I was busted. He knew I’d been crying and that’s how he came to be sitting here beside me.
It figures. All this, on my thirteenth birthday, the day I’m to become a man.
“Look here, Six.”
That’s what he calls me. That’s what everybody calls me on account of my being a legacy. My real name is Cornelius Constantine Crabtree. I’m the sixth generation of firstborn Crabtree men to bear this name. My nickname is no mystery. The story is that people in town took to calling Great Grandfather “Crabthree” instead of Crabtree. He’d thought they’d all grow out of it eventually, but the name stuck. When Grandfather was born, the joke passed to him, though they didn’t call him “Crabfour.” Just Four. Now the counting joke is a source of family pride. Six generations in Hankins County. So, call me Six. Everybody else does. Even Momma.
“Six, look at me when I’m talking to you,” father commands. But I’m not looking at him. I can’t. My eyes are wet. My eyelids, filled with sand, scrape against my eyeballs with every blink. “Crabtree men don’t cry.” Grandfather reminded me of this fact again this morning. After he made me cry.
So I stand.
I stand and walk toward my window to survey the vast Crabtree Empire, to think. Almost-white paint, carelessly applied so many years ago by lazy men who were—according to Grandfather—more interested in getting finished than having pride in a job well-done, extends beyond the putty framing each glass pane, cracked, crazed, and peeling in large, rectangular chunks. Tiny black rivers run North and South. East and West. They run off the right-angled panes and onto the outer window frame where they stop; they stop just-short of crossing the narrow gap to the adjacent wall where they could run free, unencumbered. The paint, once pure white, now ugly and mottled, will never look the same again. I stand mesmerized by the overwhelming pattern, and for a while, I do not acknowledge the world outside.
Still, my back is to father because I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want him to see mine. He’s talking to me now, but I’m not listening. I taste the salt of my tears in the corners of my mouth. I take a deep breath to steady myself and wipe both eyes with the backs of my hands. They are as wet as if I had spit on them. Twice. And just as sticky.
In the background, I realize he’s still talking, and now that my face is dry, I turn to look at him. His lips are moving across his teeth at incredible speed; he’s making a high-pitched, monotone sound—not words, exactly—just a single, insistent tone.
His crooked, discolored, Crabtree teeth. One day, my teeth. My attention is drawn to the teeth marks on the windowsill and I imagine two, three generations of Crabtree boys cutting teeth on the painted poplar wood, each board hand-hewn from the Crabtree Empire Forest.
One day, all of this will be mine, I think. Screw ‘em all.
“Listen, I know you’re upset about wanting to play with your new little handicapped friend this morning, what’s his name?” father asks.
“Phil. His name is Phil. And he’s not handicapped, he’s, he’s differently-abled.”
“Right. Phil. Phil,” father repeats to himself. “Your Grandfather was simply suggesting that you might not want to spend so much time with Phil. That’s why he called the boy’s father to pick him up and take him back home.”
“Why? Because he’s different?”
“Look, Six. There’s something I want you to understand. It’s not just about Phil. There’s a bigger issue here. A big picture that you need to be able to see. We’re Crabtrees. Crabtree men, see? There are certain expectations . . . certain, well, certain . . . considerations.”
He looks at me like this means something to me.
He continues, “It’s not that the boy—what’s his name?—Bill?—is different exactly, it’s that we are different, you and me. Grandfather, too. And you know what? It’s always been like this, since One laid claim to this land and built this town from the dirt up with his bare hands. Later, he built this very house the same way. Other people—most other people that is, don’t understand us. They never have. They want what we have and that’s not, well, that’s not gonna happen. See? It’s us against them, the Crabtrees against everybody else.”
I cut in saying, “But what’s all this got to do with me playing with Phil?”
“As long as we stick together, as long as we stick together as a family, nothing can hurt us, see?”
“But he wasn’t—”
“We live in a world of opposites, Six. Rich—Poor. Ugly—Handsome. Stupid—Smart. You can’t be one thing and another at the same time. It’s God’s way. Do you see?”
He takes a breath and levels his voice and keeps going. “Black or White. Red or Yellow. Do you understand?”
I shake my head dumbly.
“We look at others and define ourselves not so much by what we are but by what we are not. You see?”
I suck some snot, and I shake my head again.
“Comparing ourselves to others in the outside world gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of family. Some people call it prejudice, but prejudice in itself isn’t bad. It’s whether we act on the prejudice and discriminate against others that makes the difference.”
“Difference, my boy, is what makes the world go round. And don’t you feel bad. You belong to your group—they belong to theirs. Christian or Jew. Muslim or Hindu. Atheist or Agnostic, though I don’t think they have groups—but you get my point. Anyway, feeling that you belong to something bigger than you is what keeps us going, it’s what keeps everyone going.”
I listen. I suck more snot.
“That boy, Phil, he’s not like us, not at all. He needs to find people who are like him so he’ll fit in. Handicappers with handicappers, see? That’s all your Grandfather was trying to say.” Father takes a deep breath and looks satisfied. “Does this help? Do you understand now? I’m sure that you can see how Phil will be better off without you in the long run, right? He needs to be with his own people.”
I stop crying, probably ‘cause I’m out of water.
Could it be? Could it be that father is right? Maybe Phil and I don’t need to hang around each other. I mean, he’s cool and all, but he can’t just take off into the woods and play with me and the other boys. And how in the hell is he supposed to get up in the tree fort anyhow, on my back?
“Six. Six. Turn around and let me get a good look at you. Turn around!”
So I turn slowly and face Five, finally.
“You sure do look nice in your uniform. Your Momma is going to be so proud to see you,” he says beaming. “People say sewing is a dying art, but by God, your Momma did a fine job on this here. A fine job.”
I throw my shoulders back like the finest soldier who ever was, standing like I am at attention ready to salute a superior officer.
“Here, try this on,” father says with a wink. He makes a few adjustments and when he backs up and I can finally see his face again, he says, “Would you take a look at that! You look sharp as a tack.”
I look through tiny slits at my bright white reflection in the chifforobe mirror, but I don’t recognize myself. Instead, I see a starched white, miniaturized, four-foot, nine-and-a-half inch version of Grandfather, nodding his approval at me.
“It’s almost dark. Go on downstairs and start the pickup. Grandfather and I will be there directly,” father says. “You can wear your uniform to the ceremony, but take this off until we get to the meeting,” he says as he reaches toward my head. Some folks just wouldn’t understand.”
I suppose they won’t.
“Here you go,” he says. “You can put that back on when we get there,” he calls out to me, as I make my way down the stairs, one measured step at a time, with my freshly starched hood in my left hand, and the keys firmly planted in my right.
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