Chapter 2 “You Ain’t Nothin’ Unless You’re Something”
Mama always said, “You ain’t nothin’ unless you think somethin’ of your own self.” When I was younger, I once asked her how some people got to be rich while others went without. “Well,” Mama said, “A long time ago, well over a hundred years ago or so; a great tornado came to Oklahoma and picked up all them homes spread across our great state and plopped them down haphazardly where God best saw the people in them fitting in. It was sort of like the story of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. All them houses were just plunked down in the middle of nowhere in some cases,” she said. “Some people started out rich and went poor because they was placed near the railroad tracks, or the other way around when a poor man suddenly found hisself living on a giant plot of land out by Lake Murray,” she said. “You don’t get to choose anymore, Barley, where you’s gonna live or how much money you’s gonna have one day. You was born without a pot to piss in because God did all the choosin’ for you by placin’ you here with me, right where ya belong. He did all that long before you was born by picking your parents, and our parents before us, and so on. There ain’t even a God-damned thing anyone can do about it. You just gotta be thankful ya just got a roof over your head and plumbin’ to wash the dirt off your hands when you come in from work, and clothes on your back to protect you from the sun and to ward off the cold. No one needs anything much more than that, Barley,” she said.
“You forgot love,” I whispered under my breath, so low and barely audible that I was certain she couldn’t hear it. But, Mama’s hearing was sharp, just like her tongue. “Love ain’t gonna get you through but one single, solitary winter. Don’t you ever forget that,” she said, casting her eyes away from me and dropping the conversation entirely by dismissing it with a wave of her calloused hands. “But, you love Daddy, right?” I said. Still, Mama would have no more of it and I knew it was best to leave the conversation alone.
I had to hand it to Mama’s imagination about that tornado, and for making excuses for her and Daddy like that about where we lived, in our tiny trailer spread out along with all them other trailers and government-owned houses that dotted the landscape in the very armpit of Oklahoma society. I guess some of what she said, did make sense, even though it weren’t all entirely true.
Maybe she’s right. Maybe you are what you are born into, and there ain’t nothing you can ever do to fight off Old Man Destiny. I wished it weren’t my true, but people would look at us and our dirty hands and feet from runnin’ around in the yard and from being barefoot all day, and I just knowed they was making assumptions about who we was and where we came from, and pro’bly rightly so. If a rich man walked into a store and he was covered in sweat and had dirt under his nails, there was no other explanation for that except that maybe he was out playing in a soccer game or workin’ in his backyard, planting a flower garden or something, and all it took for you to know he had money was by takin’ one good look at the clothes on his back. Take a poor man, under those same circumstances, and place him in that same store and you’d either take pity on him or be embarrassed for him for showing up in public, all soiled-up like that, and you’d thank your lucky stars you didn’t wind-up standing in the Welfare line and eating government cheese in your macaroni, right along with him.
The only thing is, no one else but me in my family seemed to notice all them rich people stopping and staring at us all the time and casting their judgments on us like they was God Hisself-reincarnated in a living, breathing human soul standing next to us in the cashier line at the Affiliated Food Stores. Believe it or not, poor people have a great deal of pride, and that pride just kept them browsin’ the aisles until it was time to hand their food stamps to the cashier, and pride kept them walking right out the front door, stompin’ the dirt off their boots the whole way. But, from where I sat, pride and ignorance went hand-in-hand. In our two-bedroom trailer, down at the Cloverleaf Trailer Park, deposited neatly under the bypass, Pride’s name was Earl and Ignorance’s name was Franny, and I secretly hoped that one day I wouldn’t turn out just like them.
It’s not that my Mama was stupid really, even though she didn’t have nothing more than a seventh grade education. She was smart enough, she just didn’t have a lick of common sense. She told me she had to drop out of junior high school to help take care of her baby sister, Mabel, while her Mama and Daddy went to work providing for her nine other brothers and sisters. Mama wasn’t much of a student anyway; she could barely read and write and it wasn’t until she was twenty years old that Doc Patton at the medical clinic, told her he thought she had Dyslexia, given her struggle fillin’ out paperwork all the time. When Mama first said she had a disease, I imagined twenty different ways she was gonna die right in front of me, and straightaway big old tears welled-up in my eyes. When Mama saw the terrified look on my face she immediately dismissed my fears, “Nah, Barley, it ain’t nothing like that! What I have is the sort of disease that makes your brain tell your eyes to see things backwards, that’s all. That’s why I’m none to good at readin’ and writin’.” And there it was. That “Ah-ha! Moment” I had been waiting for my whole life, that one explanation for why my mother was the way she was. One singular sentence described my mother’s condition perfectly and I knew Doc Patton had given her the proper diagnosis. I had always questioned the way my Mama saw things, in all fourteen years of my young life. But that day, when Mama came home plagued with the Dyslexia, it all suddenly began to make sense. Mama was just backwards.