~This nonfiction narrative originally appeared in The New Orleans Review (1980).
Editor’s note: This piece contains offensive language.
The Reign of the Gypsies
My stepfather slept with pistols. I have a memory from shortly after my mother married him and he moved the three of us into the blue house on the hill. I am sitting cross-legged on their bed. Marvin reaches into the drawer of the night table. This is Joe, he says, hefting out a stubby .38. He opens his coat. And Old Tom. A squarish .45 is strapped to a stiff piece of leather under his arm. The point of the display was that I was never to touch these things, which I became accustomed to as furnishings of their room, Joe on the night table with the medicine bottles and mystery books and Old Tom under Marvin’s pillow.
No one ever explained to me why Marvin armed himself. I doubt anyone could have. I came to understand on my own that he gambled and that his successful amusement company supplied local honkytonks with illegal slot machines as well as with nickelodeons and pinball. Our east Mississippi town accepted him as a benign sort of rich outlaw. Except for the benign part, he so encouraged this impression that I eventually decided his guns were props. Now I know it wasn’t that simple. No more simple than childhood, which I once thought was overrated as being a time of wonder.
Marvin feared gypsies. I didn’t know that gypsies had a history in our town and that a gypsy queen is buried there, and I didn’t know if gypsies were even real or if they were like the fantasy people in some of my books. Yet one afternoon after I came home from elementary school, he almost convinced me a gang of them had laid siege to the house. I remember charging at windows with my baseball bat and a favorite kitchen knife. Our excitable dogs roiled about me. Marvin joined in from his window chair at the kitchen table and shouted encouragement and warnings as I kicked paths through the dogs.
The game ended when he locked me indoors and took the boxers to guard outside. Through the picture window in the playroom I watched him standing at the top of the driveway overlooking an acre of yard. The boxers have run off. Breeze ruffles his silk pajamas and thick, perfectly white hair. He ignores a neighbor’s called greeting, cocks my BB gun, and sets himself to stare down a pine tree.
There were many pines in that yard, and woods lay beyond. He must have held the vigil until my mother came home from her work at his office. By the time she coaxed him inside, I was either picking at the house dogs or peering through snow on the new television set.