A Summer Visit
By D.F. Wharton
Now I can only speak for myself, but according to how my days, weeks, and months role by, July and August are the most busy and brutal and hardest working months out of the twelve-month year. This is ironic because my job title is teacher, even though I don’t think of myself anymore a teacher than anybody else, and July and August are the two months out of the year that I don’t have to clock in or clock out: I’m off, on vacation, supposedly not working.
Now again, I can only speak for myself. I’m sure there are teachers that don’t have a spouse and kids and a dog and a house that was built during the first world war, that is daily falling apart in new and imaginative ways—with piping and wiring, fixtures and receptacles connected thereto, all incompatible with any supplies and materials sold on the market today, or for the last 30 years for that matter—so any little thing that goes wrong is never little, but big… very big… and very expensive. And maybe those teachers are off living some sort of utopian dream for the months of July and August, and if they are, good on them. That is not this teacher’s experience.
I was greeted with a leaking shower head in a bathroom situated opposite the great outdoors, outside of the house, which means I couldn’t come at the problem from an opposing wall, on my first day of vacation. No, I had to break up tiles that I had no replacement for, only to find out that I was dealing with a plumbing problem that would frighten mathematicians all the way up to the PhD level. You see, those of us educators who are among the common heard of humans know a little secret: arts and liberal education, for most practical purposes, is utterly useless.
There is also the painting. Each summer I paint one or two rooms, sometimes more, just to put up a little combat against the deterioration that is always advancing and ever waging war. For if you took on a mortgage debt that is just barely on the right side of half a million dollars, you feel the urgency to fight the battle that will inevitably end in certain death, which is rapidly approaching. But the day-to-day blessings of life compel, and the fight is one worth fighting. So, during July and August the painting is an everyday thing. The drop cloths and paint and accompanying materials are always set up in the room on which I am working. I have a station set up around the back of the house for cleaning the brushes and rollers and pans and buckets at the end of each day.
Another major order of business is getting the kids into camp for the summer…the entire summer. This is perhaps the most important item on the agenda. So naturally, my wife takes the reins. She searches for three criteria: free, duration, and each day is a long day. Which, in the Bronx, in the beloved City of New York, is possible. But only if you are willing to sign up for the newsletters, and read the emails, and fill out the paperwork, and apply to all the top preferences. And thank God my wife explores all options and gets the job done. Kids are a blessing, but we need them to get out—far, far away—for a good portion of the day.
Another problem that I have to deal with, that is probably unique to teachers, is the many family and friends that know I am on vacation and try to be my good idea fairy, telling me what I should do during my vacation. They come out of the woodwork with bucket lists of things for me to do, or places for me to go, as if I don’t have anything to do, or they think I don’t know what to do with myself, or… I don’t know? I don’t try to understand it, I just resolve myself to do my best at fending them off and keeping to the work that I need to accomplish in the two months I have, which certainly is not enough time.
So, as a family, we settle into the summer schedule. We get into the drop-off and pick-up schedule for the camps; the feeding and grocery schedule; and supply needs for the bathroom repair, painting, and the maintenance. My wife and I are a good team. We’re on the same page: we fight and fend off the good idea fairies, and do what needs to be done for us.
We were only a few days into the summer vacation when my wife informed me that her mother was coming to visit us.
DeeDee is what we call her. She is 75 years old and from Sparta, North Carolina. That’s way out in the sticks for all ya’ll who don’t know. My wife is the ninth child born to DeeDee. And by all socio-economic standards, DeeDee is dirt poor—but you wouldn’t feel any such vibe from this queen of the south. All vibes emanating from this matriarch are along these lines: confidence, peace, faith, serenity, tranquility, and royalty. A have-not that is more of a have than any have I’ve ever experienced. And after a while in her presence I start talkin country all the same. Now this is not a history lesson, but to give the reader a snapshot, over 60 years ago DeeDee was a black teenage girl in the deep south of North Carolina, with callused fingers from picking cotton, dark teeth from chewing tobacco, and a sore back from working the field.
Sixty some years later DeeDee is on her way to the Bronx, not for the first time by any means, on a Greyhound bus outta Sparta, North Carolina—for a variety of reasons only known to DeeDee (the fuzz back in Sparta was coming around and asking a lot of questions about one of DeeDee’s boys that was having some trouble with his conditions of probation), one of them to visit us—with a small bag of clothes, some cash, a New Testament King James Bible, a pocket knife, two spray cans of mace, a can of Skoel long-cut straight, a pint of whisky, a pre-paid cell phone (flip phone), and a QFX FM and AM multiband receiver with a couple extra AA batteries to boot. Along the way DeeDee would look for numbers on signs, or anything else that spoke to her, that she would jot down in a little spiral notebook, numbers she planned to play against the New York Lottery when she would touch down in the Big Apple.
DeeDee was not a good idea fairy coming to hijack my summer vacation with a bucket list and suggestions to tell me how to spend my day. DeeDee didn’t even know when I was on vacation because the summer vacation for teachers in North Carolina is not the same for teachers in New York. She was coming because she wanted to come, and that was that. Only DeeDee knew why DeeDee did the things that she did. So we put her up in my daughter’s room, where a bunk bed is usually occupied with stuffed animals on top. My daughter took the top bunk, DeeDee took the bottom.
The first thing that changed with DeeDee’s presence was breakfast. DeeDee was appalled by so-called healthy cereal. And while she withheld her rebuke, it was obvious all the same. I had to take DeeDee to the grocery store, and for the remainder of her stay, breakfast was corned beef hash, grits, spam, bacon, scrambles eggs, cantaloupe and watermelon.
DeeDee tried to settle in quietly, not disturbing the regular flow of things. But DeeDee was there, so there was no way the flow of things was going to be regular. One morning, after my wife and I had gotten the kids to camp, I sat opposite DeeDee, my plate filled with corned beef hash, grits, and scrambled eggs, and we talked.
Pepsi? For breakfast?
No orange juice?
You don’t like OJ?
Doctor says it’s no good for me. Diabetes.
So you drink Pepsi instead?
Doctor said Pepsi is ok but no OJ?
No, Pepsi aint no good either.
So you break the rules for Pepsi but not for orange juice?
You always ask this many questions?
I’m just sayin.
Well orange Juice aint got no reward to make it worth the while. Dat Pepsi got a snap to it. Make it worth it. Reward worth risk, you know? Orange juice don’t have a reward that’s worth the risk.
I thought about that. I said, I see what you mean. Let me try some a that Pepsi. I took a drink of cold Pepsi. Wow, I said. That’s good stuff. Definitely a reward there.
Amen, said DeeDee. Got a nice snap to it, don’t it?
Sure does, I said.
We had some breakfast and talked and drank Pepsi and afterward had some coffee. I got started on the housework and my wife and DeeDee went out to go looking around, shopping, and hanging out. My wife doesn’t drive so they took the bus, and did a lot of walking. They didn’t get back until late. And while my wife looked exhausted, DeeDee looked just fine and refreshed.
You can do some walking can’t you? I said.
Sure can, I walk all day, from can see ta can’t.
Not at night?
No sir’ee. I don’t truck wit da dark now, let me tell ya. Men love dat darkness, cuz they deeds is evil.
Amen, I heard that.
DeeDee liked to gamble. She talked about a casino that opened up near Sparta and the slot machines that she liked to play: Bars and Sevens, Wheel of Fortune, Betty Boop.
We got a casino in Yonkers, I said.
My wife shot me a bad look.
Yea, I know, said DeeDee.
I looked at my wife beseechingly.
You tryin to go? I said to DeeDee, still partially affixed on my wife, who was slowly shaking her head from side to side, seemingly appalled at where I was going with this conversation. But I didn’t feel like I was pushing the topic. I was just picking up on what seemed to be an unspoken desire of DeeDee’s. It was obvious she wanted to go to the casino and I had never been to Empire City, the casino in Yonkers, and I didn’t mind going to check it out.
Well, I aint tryin to be no burden ta yall, now, said DeeDee.
No way, I said. I wouldn’t mind checkin out Empire City.
What do you think, sweetheart? I said to my wife, grinning, still with beseeching eyes, you think we should go?
My wife said: And if Jesus comes back tomorrow, how are we supposed to explain what we’re doing in a devil’s house, gambling and keepin company with sinners?
DeeDee said: Now hold on now, Jesus et wit the publicans and sinners now. Jesus awright wit a little bars’n sevens now. Dey caste lots in da Bible, come on now.
My wife said: It’s up to my husband.
We’re going, I said.
I usually take a hundred dollars when I go to the casino but I aint got no money ta speak of and I don’t wanna trouble ya’ll.
I got you covered DeeDee. All you need to bring is your luck.
I went to the ATM and punched in my pin and took a sorrowful breath with some depth and took out two hundred dollars. Ouch. When we got to the casino I went to a cashier and converted the two hundred into a stack of fives. For some reason I thought it would be better to give DeeDee the money in fives so she wouldn’t get hung up on one slot machine, but I don’t know why I leaned on any thinking of my own because I had never been to a casino, so what do I know about slot machines? But being the man and all, I figured I needed to lay out the strategy, and thinking back on it, I guess DeeDee let me talk and was nice about it because I was the one that was giving her the money.
I gave DeeDee a stack of one hundred and forty dollars in fives, she got her visor out of her bag and put it low over her eyes and pulled a pinch of dip from the Skoal and shoved it behind her lip and she said, I’ll catch up wit ya’ll later. So my wife and I stood there looking at each other and laughing at the situation that we were in, and my wife was looking at the machines and I said, You wanna play? And my wife said,
Lord forgive me but yea I wanna play, and I said,
Which machine do you reckon we ought to try? and she said,
How about that one? and I said,
Ok let’s play that one, and we approached and put a five dollar bill into the machine that read Bars and Sevens on the label above, and I said,
You think we should do the minimum bet? or the Max bet? or something in-between? and she said,
The minimum, because I guess she was trying to maintain at least some dignity in this sinful venture, so I say,
Ok, and I push the button that says minimum bet, which is twenty five cents a spin, and I say, Do the honors, and my wife looks at me with an ornery smile and reaches her hand forward and hits the spin button and the wheels of bars and sevens gets to spinning on the screen. Our attention is fastened on that screen and we are, dare I say, hoping to win some money.
Well that first spin hits something that is a winner, and our credits start to rise and the bells sound off and the lights flash, and my wife and I try to pretend we aren’t as excited as we really are and try to play it cool, while our five dollars turns into 10 dollars and we are looking at each other and smiling, but we aren’t smiling later when we are back down to five and I said,
You reckon we should cash out and try another machine and my wife said,
Yea, and we cash out and take the five-dollar voucher and go to another machine that neither of us understand, but what does that matter? I put the voucher in and we place the minimum bet and spin away until that five dollars is gone. Now we don’t feel so good. So we walk around and spot DeeDee at a machine, but we leave her alone because she is putting off the vibe that she wants to be left alone. So my wife and I lose another ten dollars. Feeling pretty worthless about it, we decide to hang it up and go to the food court and get some chow.
What a waste, my wife said.
Right? I said.
Yea, but if we would have kept winning you know you would be feeling different.
That wouldn’t happen because the house always wins.
The house? I said. Did you just say, the house? Sometimes my wife would let some of her concealed knowledge slip, and using a phrase like, The house always wins, alluded to a knowledge base she pretended not to have. Yea that’s true, I continued, but I’m just saying: if we would have kept winning you would have been happy about it and things would have turned out differently.
Maybe, but it didn’t. And I already put this in God’s hands and it was your decision to come to this place because I would never have come here in the first place, so whatever happens here is on you buddy.
You’re forgetting one thing, I said.
And what’s that?
That we’re one. Like in Genesis. They two shall become one flesh. So my decisions are your decisions.
You would be thinking about the flesh, wouldn’t you?
Kinda hard not to when your around, I said, and narrowed my eyes at this beautiful woman that is my wife.
And just like that we were together, in our own world, my wife—the woman of my dreams—and I. Here we were, living a beautiful life under Gods banner, while DeeDee plied the hustler’s hand in the Empire Casino, something in which my wife and I were obviously not adept.
When DeeDee was ready to leave she found us. When we got to the car she gave me fifty dollars back and thanked me for the playing money. She seemed to imply that the fifty dollars was all that she had left, but there was this glimmer in her eye that made it seem as if she was concealing something, yet it was still bursting forth, and it was a fifty-dollar bill that she gave me, so that means she got it back from a voucher. It would forever be a mystery as to how much money she really left the casino with. My wife and I glanced at each other with a knowing look. DeeDee had more money. But that was ok. I had already come to grips with losing all the money in the casino. I had some cash, and now with the fifty, I thought we did well.
Some days later we were all sitting in the backyard, grilling some hamburgers and drinking Pepsi, enjoying the evening, when DeeDee pulls the pint of whisky out of her bag and takes a swig and passes it to me, and without thinking about it much I reach out my hand and take the bottle, look it over, look up to God in the sky, take a deep breath, because Lord knows what I’m about to do, and I tip the bottle back and take a deep pull and then pass it back to DeeDee. The whisky hits me hard. I can’t remember the last time I took any drink of any kind of alcohol. My wife was shaking her head at me but it is what it is. So, DeeDee is talking to us and telling us stories and we are passing the bottle back and forth. She then pulls out the can of Skoal, packs a dip, and hands me the can, as if I’m a regular tobacco dipping fellow myself. My first instinct was to reject this offer, but I was feeling a good buzz from the food and Pepsi and whisky, and I got to thinking that if I just make sure to spit I won’t get sick, so I take the can in stride as DeeDee is talking and take me a pinch and pack it behind my lip.
That pinch of Skoal hit me like a sledgehammer. I was dizzy sitting down, doing my best to spit every drip of saliva into my empty Pepsi can because I knew what was going to happen if some of that juice got down my throat and into my stomach. I was sinking into my chair and into the ground, feeling sadly grand, because while I had a buzz, I also knew what was coming. I no longer heard DeeDee talking because I was thinking about where I was going to vomit. There was a little too much tobacco juice in the last swallow and I felt it down in my stomach—with the burgers and the Pepsi and the whisky—it was bubbling and I was guessing I had a minute at the most before I was going to be hurling up everything.
I excused myself and headed to the bathroom. When I got into the bathroom I took off my shirt and pulled up a chair to the toilet, sat down, raised the toilet lid and spit out the tobacco. I was sweating and hot and felt miserable. It took about 10 seconds before the vomiting started and it probably lasted about 20 seconds before it was all out. When my system was cleared, I thought about the Bible verse talking about a fool being like a dog returning to his vomit, and the times I had been in this condition years ago, and I smiled and said to myself, There it is, and washed up and went back out and enjoyed the rest of the evening, abstaining from whisky and Skoal.
DeeDee was always up on current and unique news. Early on during her visit I didn’t think much about it, and I would listen as she informed me about the information that she was getting. But one morning, as she was telling me about a gay rights parade getting crushed in Jamaica, resulting in deaths and bloodshed—that was not covered on any of the major news media outlets—I wondered how DeeDee was getting this news. She had no computer, no smart phone, and she didn’t watch news on TV.
Where are you getting this news from? I asked DeeDee.
From a bunch a places.
Well, stations. AM got the best news.
That’s right, you have a radio, I said.
Yea, she said, and looked at me like I was dumb.
As DeeDee lay in bed at night she would slowly turn along the stations of that QFX FM and AM multiband receiver and when she hit a news channel she would park the dial and listen a while, and that is how she got her news. Amazing, I thought to myself. This seventy-five- year-old woman from Sparta, North Carolina was more knowledgeable about world events than me (with my smartphone, laptop, cable TV, electronic newspapers) with her multiband receiver, tuning into AM stations in the night.
The duration of DeeDee’s visit had extended longer than DeeDee had originally expected, and one day she came to me with a problem:
I’m outta dip. You know where I can get some?
I figured any bodega should have some. So, I said, I figure any bodega should have some, and so we stopped into the first one we passed.
We stopped into another.
This happened a few times and I was kinda surprised that bodegas didn’t carry any dip, but we stayed at it and finally came across a tobacco shop, and I said, Look, there’s a tobacco shop, they’ve got to have some chewing tobacco of some kind.
That’s right, she said.
We went into the tobacco shop on East Tremont. The clerk had a Middle Eastern look about him, and when I asked him if they had any dip he said,
Dip? Or any kinda chewing tobacco?
The fellow laughed and said, Nobody chews tobacco around here.
Who you callin nobody? said DeeDee.
The clerk was taken aback and rendered short for words. As was I.
That’s what I thought, said DeeDee without missing a beat, you aint nothin but a sand nigga anyhow. Com’on Roger, let’s go.
You can’t talk to me like that! said the agitated clerk.
I just did, sand nigga.
Go back to the old people home, old lady! he retorted in a barely discernable accent.
Slow ya roll hajji, I heard myself say. Fo I come back wit stick’n stones! I turned to DeeDee, who had rage in her eyes, and said, Come on DeeDee, let’s go. The last thing I needed was to get caught up in a hate crime.
The Speedway had some Skoal.
Here is where I bring this story to an end. DeeDee finally got word that the fuzz had backed off. Things weren’t so hot in the area where they once were. She was good to go home without having to worry about the jakes pressing her about her son. It took us all a few day to get over DeeDee’s visit. After it was all over, and she was gone, the next morning I was sitting in my backyard drinking coffee and reading my Bible. As the sun was coming up, I felt unexplainably good about life: thankful. There is something about the spirit of man—the spirit in all of us—that makes for a very interesting world. I am uncertain what I truly derived from DeeDee’s visit, but I received something, and it was good: A breath of fresh air perhaps. My shower is not fixed yet, the painting not done, the kids are still in camp, we are still fending off the good idea fairies, and July is over. One more month, school is on again. It’s just another episode in this teacher’s summer.