A Warm Place to Laugh

by Terry Barr

Warm_Place_LaughLike most kids, I thought my parents married for love. Mom was nineteen, living at home with her widowed mother. Dad was twenty-six, living at home with his parents. One evening, my father’s sister invited a girlfriend home for dinner. My father was sitting in the living room reading The Birmingham News. Their eyes met. He walked her home that night, and within a year they were married.

But. And you surely knew something was coming, but was it this? Mom was Protestant (Methodist), and Dad was Jewish (Reform). When I discovered their truth at age seven, I still thought that love had brought them together. In relatively small-town Alabama in the early 1950’s, what else could explain their union?

Over the years, though, I learned other things. I learned about rebellion and jealousy and incompatibility. About the past and those who lived, or perhaps still live, in it.

My parents were alternating social creatures. Alternating in the sense that my mother was and my father was not. Mom played in bridge clubs, gathered in garden clubs, enjoyed going out on the town with my father to movies, for dancing, or to eat at her favorite restaurants: Joy Young, a Chinese-American place on one of downtown Birmingham’s busiest streets, or The Bright Star, a Greek-owned establishment that had been central to our suburban enclave of Bessemer since 1907. Dad indulged Mom in these social settings, but they were never for him. He preferred a good football or baseball game, depending on the season. Mainly though, he loved sitting in “his chair” in front of the TV, centrally located in our den. He loved it if we watched his favorite shows with him—Combat, The RiflemanÏ, Cheyenne. But then, he seemed to love it just as much if we holed up in other parts of the house and left him in front of the TV alone.

In the early evening after supper, though, both of my parents loved sitting on our front porch, sometimes joined by neighbors, but mainly just with my grandmother, as they watched my brother and I playing chase or Red Light or some form of “ball” in the yard. Our street was old and established in the hills just south of the main business district. In the daylight savings time hours before dark, couples from adjoining streets would stroll past, waving hello, sometimes stopping for a quick bit of gossip, in the way I imagined they did in all the years before I was born.

“Who was that?” was my most often-asked question, and though it scarcely mattered whether I knew them or remembered them later, discovering the names of some of these couples satisfied me in a way I couldn’t describe, especially if they were names like Frank and Estelle Sachs, or Isidore and Esther Bach. Mainly these couples just waved and moved on, and we would linger outside until it got too dark or until we couldn’t take one more mosquito bite. Then it was baths, and after, to the den where we all watched the shows Dad selected for us.

In the adult world (and for some reason I was all-too-keenly aware of this), most of the “single” people I knew were my grandmother’s friends, all widows like her. Somehow, a woman living by herself, while sad, wasn’t strange to me. But a man? There was one lone widower on our street, Mr. Hollingsworth, but he lasted only six months before he found love again in the arms of Mrs. Davis, one of my grandmother’s church friends. Couples in love and finding each other in their seventies made me happy.

I could never visualize my Dad being alone, without women, even though Mom often referred to him as “a loner.” To me, loners were western heroes, cowboy types like Shane, or the motorcycle drifter on Then Came Bronson. I could see being their kind of loner, desired by women, envied by men. That wasn’t Dad. Then Edward came along. Until then, I just didn’t have or want a place for his type of loner in my imagination, didn’t truly understand what a real loner was. Or that my parents were capable of finding fulfillment outside of each other.

I first saw Edward when I was eleven or twelve, standing in our front doorway being greeted by my mother and grandmother as if he were returning from some foreign war. They ushered him into the kitchen, sliced him a piece of homemade pound cake, poured him a Coke over ice, and then introduced me.

My grandmother called me by my own invented nickname, “Bob,” as did my brother and father and maid, Dissie. They were the only ones, until Edward.

“Hello Bobby, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”

He always laughed that way: a louder form of chuckling but not as maniacal as Batman’s Joker.

On this early summer evening, I stood quietly, watching Edward, and waiting. And then my dad walked in.

“Why, hello Edward! Where have you been?”

I never heard exactly where Edward had been, but I did learn that Edward was an old family friend who had gone to high school with my mother, that his own parents still lived nearby, on Dartmouth Avenue, and that Edward was once again living with them. That seemed strange to me: a man in his late thirties still living with his parents. It distracted me almost enough to forget that The Johnny Cash Show had already started, but not quite.

Edward stayed for a few hours that night, eventually joining my parents, grandmother, younger brother Mike and me in the den, trying to make conversation with me while Johnny and his guests—maybe Dylan or Neil Young—performed songs on live television before the days of VCR: before the time when if you missed something you could watch your recording later in the privacy of your own company.

“Bobby, ha ha ha. Do you like The Buckinghams?”

Actually, I did own a Buckinghams’ 45: “Hey Baby (They’re Playing Our Song).” I hadn’t intended buying it. I wanted the new Paul Revere and the Raiders hit in its picture sleeve cover. I trusted Pizitz, our downtown department store, but when I got the record home and pulled it from its sleeve, there were The Buckinghams instead. But the song sounded fine and became a favorite on my portable turntable.

“Yeah, they’re OK.”

“Ha ha ha ha ha.”

*

Over the next three years, Edward’s visits were usually spaced out over two-to-three week intervals, though sometimes a couple of months would go by. He never explained where he had gone, what he had been doing, and whenever anyone in the family asked Mom if she knew, she just shook her head.

“I have no idea where that man is. Why would I know?”

Which made me want to know even more. It wasn’t that I never thought of asking Edward himself why he hadn’t been around. But somehow, in the realm of “Adult things that I’m not supposed to understand,” asking seemed too risky, too forbidden.

During these first visits, though (the honeymoon phase, I might call it now), he’d drive the six blocks from his parents’ house in his old gold Mustang. Edward’s car matched his cigarette brand, as well as the golden aura from his slick brown hair, neatly parted and combed to the left; his complexion, a gold-tinted facial rosacea; and even his teeth, stained golden from those smokes and his admitted coffee addiction. In the fall weather, he’d wear a gold cardigan. A sweater that had seen better days, which, I suppose, summed up Edward’s life, too.

Sometimes, he’d take us places, like the zoo or the Birmingham A’s baseball game at Rickwood Field. These outings usually took place on weekdays while my Dad was at work or Saturday afternoons when he ritually mowed our lawn, so Dad never went on these trips, only Edward and my mother or grandmother, and Mike. From the back, I’d see Edward stretch his long arm across the bucket seat and rest it on the back of my mother’s seat. I’d hear him call her “honey.” And my mother never moved away from him or seemed to notice or mind at all. But Dad never called her “honey.” When I was younger, I did hear them call each other “Poohlard” which I supposed was their personal term of endearment, though I had no idea what Poohlard meant, what it referred to, or who came up with it in the first place. What I was sure of, though, was that it was not “honey.”

Once, Edward’s nephew Billy, a guy maybe a year older than me, came to visit. On one of these car trips, Billy turned to me and, nodding at the grownups in front, said, “It’s like they’re married or something.”

Billy’s words numbed me into silence: it did feel like that. For a while during that summer I wondered, and waited, and became increasingly nervous and uncomfortable at the regularity and frequency of Edward’s visits, which that first fall became weekly events. Soon, he and my mother began spending whole days together shellacking thick old boards with magazine art and then displaying them for sale at art shows throughout the upper portion of our state. They never had great success, but at one show, a kid my age literally bounced from booth to booth proudly holding for all to see the shellacked Guru that he bought from Edward. Edward was pleased, too, and for a time, he and my mother tried to give all their boards a 60’s theme with collages and “mod” patterns cut from old Look and Life magazines, and even my father’s stash of Playboys.

I tried to tell myself that my mother travelling with another man meant nothing to our world. And since no one else discussed it, seemed to mind it, or acted strangely about it, I was mostly able to still my fantasies and worries. Dad, Mike, and I would sometimes join them in mid-travel too, and to my memory, nothing in these art tours seemed amiss. Everyone got along well, though Dad never really “got” the art and was usually interested only in whether Mom’s sales defrayed her expenses.

In fact, that she spent a lot of time with Edward never really seemed to bother Dad. I realized that in the realm of romance, my dad was probably not a valiant lover, a man to make women swoon. He worked in a wholesale jewelry store, and for all anniversaries, birthdays, and Christmas presents, he gave my mother a carefully or hastily selected ring or pendant or necklace. Sometimes she liked the pieces; just as often she didn’t. And sometimes she vowed he gave her the same item that he had given her the year before.

My parents were intimate—I know it. The bedroom I shared with my brother adjoined our parents,’ and one morning I heard strange sounds. Other than snoring, I never heard sounds from there, so I peeked around the corner, and then I never looked into their room again, not while they were in it together anyway.

I figure that this was one of the last times they were intimate. I don’t know that, of course. I just figure it’s true because it feels true. For other than “Poohlard,” they never spoke in endearments. They rarely touched each other, even casually. Once, in the backseat of a fancy Cadillac, I heard my grandmother telling one of her widowed friends that my mother “just isn’t kissable.” I thought my grandmother was wrong then. But she knew more than I knew.

In a fundamental way, it wasn’t surprising that years later after I was married and my wife and I came back for a visit, I found that my parents had begun sleeping in separate bedrooms.

“I moved out when I had that elbow surgery,” my mother explained, “so that I wouldn’t bother your daddy. He never questioned me and certainly never asked when I was coming back to our bed. So when my arm got better, I just stayed in this room. Why should I move back? He doesn’t care!”

Which was four sentences more than I wanted to hear.

Dad didn’t say a word to me about “the move,” just as he didn’t complain many years before about Edward. The only thing that seemed to bother Dad about Edward during the entire time we knew him, was that when he dropped in on us at night—always unannounced—it was never earlier than 8:30 or 9:00. Dad would grumble at the sound of the doorbell.

“Who can that be?”

But at that time of night, we all knew who it could be. Dad would walk into his closet next to the den, and somehow in a space no bigger than a phone booth, change from his pajama bottoms to a pair of house pants, and then trudge to the door to let Edward back into our lives. Edward would plop down in my grandfather’s favorite chair and join whatever conversation or TV show we were engaged in. If it were a baseball game, Edward would try to comment on the action, though he didn’t seem to quite get our American pastime.

I can hear him clearly, even now, asking Dad, “Alvin, ha ha ha, do they still bunt?”

“Yeah Edward, they bunt when they need to,” Dad said as if he were trying to explain the intricacies of the Phillips screwdriver to an amnesia victim.

Edward always stayed past my 10:00 bedtime, and I’d have to give him a hug on my way to bed.

“Good night Bobby, ha ha ha ha ha.”

Sometimes he’d keep my parents up until 11:30.

“Doesn’t he realize that some of us have to work?” Dad would ask at supper the next night.

But no one had an answer, and no one ever asked Edward to change his ways.

*

After those first few months, there began the less normal occasions: arrivals on cold and rainy nights minus that gold mustang. Sometimes I would get to the door first. Turning on the porch light, I’d see Edward standing there. His face would brighten with the light, so glad he was to see us. My mother would escort him in to his accustomed chair by the wall heater. As I looked him over on those nights, I thought Edward’s face had grown thinner, yet redder. His eyes looked kind of dark and sunken. And I couldn’t see how his thin black trench coat and undersized umbrella could possibly keep him warm and dry on those winter rains. Nor could I understand why he’d get out on such evenings in the first place just to walk the streets.

“Is he crazy?” Dad asked.

“I don’t know,” Mom offered. “I guess he’s just lonely.”

And when he’d leave late on those nights, he wouldn’t head home. I once heard my mother and my grandmother lamenting what to do about Edward, and Mom sort of confessed, “I think he goes on to Rowan’s house.”

Rowan was our pediatrician, and another single man, one who lived two blocks from us in an old Victorian house with his mother. He was a man Edward’s age, and had also gone to high school with Edward and my mother.

“What does he do there, and why does he go so late?” I asked.

But my mother wouldn’t speculate with me. I was only thirteen or fourteen, and she figured that I was either too young or simply didn’t need to know about the wanderings of grown men. I figure now that her lament was she knew too much about such wanderings.

*

Despite my early confusion about him, I always liked Edward. He was nice to me, to all of us. His visits were inconvenient, true, but at some point, he seemed like another member of the family, sitting in his chair, folding into this warm and friendly place to be.

And then, just like he appeared, suddenly he never came back. I was toiling in high school angst by then, so I had almost forgotten about him, but Mike, now in middle school, hadn’t. Maybe a year after Edward’s disappearance, Mike asked if anyone had heard from Edward or knew what he was doing.

“I think he’s working in Birmingham,” Mom said. “I hear he’s the night clerk at the Redmont Hotel.”

The Redmont, where we spent the night years before during a winter power outage. The Redmont which, like Joy Young and most of downtown Birmingham, all the adults said had “gone to seed” since the boycotts back in the 60’s. The Redmont, full of tricks, and treats, and now Edward.

*

Things happen as you get older. Things change in ways you never thought they would. On breaks from college and grad school, I’d find myself at my parents’ house, sleeping till noon, and then preparing to go clubbing but never earlier than ten o’clock.

“Where are you going at this time of night?” Dad invariably asked.

“Out. To a club. Dancing.” Why was he bothering me? Why did he find this strange?

“It’s time for bed,” he’d say, shaking his head. I’m sure we both wondered a little about the other, then. He’d look over at Mom who, while surely worried about my staying out so late, nevertheless seemed to stare back at me with a little longing, maybe a little envy. But even then, in those moments, I never thought of Edward. Not once. That is, not until I saw him again on one of those late nights.

At the dance club.

I’m sitting at the bar of a downtown Birmingham club with my friend Sarah. We’re taking a break from the dancers and watchers, and from all those who do both at the same time. I hear the thumping bass of Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a long corridor away. I’d love to catch up to its plaintive cries, and am about to suggest that we head back. I take another swallow of beer and then look across the bar to where several older men are sipping whiskey and talking. The bartender slides away just at that instant, and I see one of these men more clearly. From that distance, he looks the same—golden, and for a second, I think about going over to speak to him. But I don’t. I don’t want to see him in close-up now, and besides, it seems very late. It seems time for us to head home, to the places where we can go: the places where we’re wanted and loved.

I know I didn’t, but part of me swears that as we left that night, I heard laughter trailing behind me. And my name following me home.

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About Terry Barr

Terry Barr's essays have appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Wilderness House Review, Red Fez, Tell Us A Story, Sport Literate, Blue Lyra Review, Melange Press, Thin Air, and Iron Gall Review. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters.

Terry Barr

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