~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.
Not much impressed me as strange then. Not gypsies. Not Joe and Old Tom, nor my mother’s marriage to a man as old as my grandfather. Without wondering about it, I wore the new cowboy suit she had picked for me and sang “Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes” and “The Tennessee Waltz” at their wedding reception in the Lamar Hotel. I can’t remember what I thought when she asked me if I objected to her divorcing my father to marry Marvin. I hardly knew my father, who seemed always away in the Army. I probably said it was okay with me and went outside to throw a ball. I didn’t think it meant anything to me that Marvin was already my godfather and that I had been given his first and middle names because, at the time of my birth, he was my parents’ childless older friend, recently widowed. His dead wife’s name interested me more than his and mine did. It felt unimportant when later I received his last name too—possibly a condition of the marriage, one fulfilled while my mother still thought him as wealthy as everyone else did.
He sang the day he came home to tell us the adoption proceedings were complete and I was legally his son. This wasn’t long after their honeymoon, but I already recognized the singing as characteristic of him. Not because he was musical but because propriety obsessed him and he must have thought the occasion called for special behavior. In the same spirit as the singing, he began teaching me how to play gin rummy around the time he became my stepfather and I became Marvin Randolph Bates, Jr. He must have taught me well—for later, even when things became strained between us, we could sit down together and play cards.
Cards also were involved at some of the other times I heard him sing. He and my mother played a social game of poker once a week with other married couples who were their friends. Sometimes they took me with them to spend the night with the friends’ children. When Marvin won, he would push back from the table, lift his drink, start slowly, then build momentum as he continued. Bringing in the sheaves. Bringing in the sheaves. O, we shall come rejoicing! Bringing in the sheaves. It was something else he thought he should do, a formula for celebration, a trademark. I imagine he sang like that before I was born when, by way of an earlier poker-playing crowd, my mother and father first came to know him and his wife, Babe.
Not long after Marvin started seeing my mother, they made an overnight trip to the Beverly Country Club, a disguised casino in what was then the outskirts of New Orleans. When my mother opened the door the afternoon they left, he greeted her with ironic eyes and gardenias in his hands. The scents of these flowers and opened suitcases fill our small, flimsy house. As he sings in the doorway his hair and his pale suit and tie take the light. Let . . . me call . . . you sweetheart, I’m in love. . . . He speaks the last phrase. With you.
My mother liked to tell how, on a trip with him to New York, he tore a hundred-dollar bill in two and gave half to the driver of their cab, promising the man the other half if they found him waiting—as they did—when they were ready to return to their hotel. Although I enjoyed her stories about Marvin, as the romance of their marriage progressed I began to dread weekends. At first Marvin’s maid, Mayola, would stay with me. But Mayola, an obese woman who was lame from birth, had her own uses for weekends and soon bridled at babysitting. When this happened Marvin would recruit previous servants. The one most available, and their last resort, was an old woman named Inez.
The best part of having Inez stay with me was driving to pick her up. She lived with her middle-aged daughter, Bessie. Bessie had been to school in the North and owned a neat brick house on the fringe of a Negro neighborhood. When we went for Inez, Marvin and my mother sometimes went into the house and sat down. On shelves in Bessie’s living room were dozens of tiny elephants made of porcelain, clear glass, marble, and wood. She had traveled when she was young, and her elephants stood for the places she had been. Once, as I gripped my knees and rocked back to look at the figures ranged above me, Bessie swept into the room and said I could touch them. Later she tells me to choose one to keep. In the car riding home I become like the children in some of my books. A winged elephant with rhinestone eyes soars in my hand.
Inez claimed to be part Choctaw; and, I think to control me, she told queer tales. Lying across from me in the other twin bed one Saturday night, she said tree devils could come in any window you slept with your back toward. I usually pretended to scorn her superstitions, but at that moment I couldn’t help rolling over to face the window and her bed, which stood under it in moonlight. What disturbed me most was not being able to tell in which direction her dark shape lay facing.
The last time she stayed with me I remember sectioning a tray of jello on the kitchen table. Inez stood over a simmering pot of wieners on the stove. The sun had dropped into the woods beyond the house, and the kitchen was lit by a ceiling bulb and shafts of receding light. The console radio in the living room boomed at high volume. We were waiting for a prize fight.
The winner gets to fight Jersey Joe Walcott! I blurted. I’m for Louis, the old champ. He’s colored, you know.
Boy. . . . I reck’n I know who Joe Louis is.
Even though Marciano gave Louis a fearsome beating, we were in thrall to Don Dunphy’s crisp, excited account. Afterwards I fought with my dummy, a croaker sack stuffed with rags, so exerting myself that I suffered a nosebleed. None of Inez’s remedies could stanch the flow. Finally she put me to bed and called the Chalfon, a roadhouse where Marvin had taken my mother dancing. Blood stood in little troughs in the sheet by the time my mother rushed into the room, her rustling skirt scented with perfume, cigarettes, and whiskey. Inez hangs back by the door, and I see Marvin’s strained face behind her.
Later that night when I say I don’t want Inez any more, my mother is dismayed. But Inez loves you.
They were away less often as more time followed the wedding and honeymoon. For a while the novelty of the house Marvin had bought occupied us. His behavior in that period reminded me of an early memory of him: he was the first person I scared on a Halloween. He had come for my mother, and when she let him in, I leapt out shaking with excitement in a stocking mask. His show of terror was all I could have hoped for. During our first season in the new house, he came home at night in the same indulgent mood. He would ask me to help him inspect the work of the painters, who were changing the house to a color a decorator called Russian blue. Or he would want to watch me shoot my new BB gun or have me tell him how I spent the afternoon. Even though there was no local television station, we had one of the first TVs in town. When reception from
the capitol, came in clearly enough, we would watch baseball and boxing and
stand with our hands over our hearts during the national anthem. Jackson
He also surrounded me with animals. There was Marvin and Babe’s old
Bozo; the flatulent boxers, Dempsey and Tunney; my mother’s toy terrier, Honey;
and my dog, Buck, a springer spaniel that could jump out of the high chain-link
pen Marvin had paid a man put up. There
were creatures too that buddies of his who hunted had given him for me: a hunt-orphaned young raccoon I named Pepper;
and a skunk kitten we considered calling Stinker but whose name we never
settled. Marvin had had a coon at my
age, and said, A boy ought to have a wild
pet. The skunk gave me a bad bite and
was soon returned to the woods. Pepper
lasted longer, even though my mother and the dogs were afraid of him. He learned to fish sugar cubes from my jeans
pockets, and I sometimes took him from his cage outside and smuggled him into
the house. One morning when my mother
threw back the covers to roust me for school, Pepper reared on his hind legs
snarling. Not long afterwards he went
the way of the skunk. Chihuahua
Marvin was my ally in pestering her until she consented to another raccoon. This one I named prematurely, and to schoolmates who walked home with me one afternoon I bragged about what they would see at my house. What they saw was Marvin’s yard man, Buddy Reese, in perplexed charge of a near-grown coon that paced at the end of a leash. As we advanced on the yard, I shrieked Salt! to my companions and darted ahead to embrace my new pet. Buddy Reese saved me from being seriously hurt, but he seemed as shaken as I was after he managed to pull the spitting fury away from me.
That ended our string of animals, though Marvin made inquiries into the details of stabling a pony.
In summer Mayola left cool suppers. If we ate during “The Cisco Kid,” I was allowed to turn the volume up on the console in the living room so we could hear it at the kitchen table. One evening Marvin was buoyant, and while we ate, we addressed each other as Ceez-co and Paan-cho. When my mother could stand it no longer and made us change the subject, we began a pretended quarrel about which of us she should prefer.
Why would she want a whippersnapper? Marvin asks me.
I warm to the problem and think I have the best of comebacks. That’s better any day. Than an old goat!
My mother reaches for both of us at once. Something spills as Marvin shoves himself back from the table.
When I knock at their bedroom door, he is lying on the chaise longue still wearing his suit pants and tie. My coached apology seems to relieve him, and he calls me Ceez-co. We begin to wrestle.
Afterwards, I sit on his legs and steer his pale blue Cadillac to Brookshire’s drive-in for ice cream. I push the fascinating buttons that put down all the windows, and the dogs hang out, wolfing wind and pine scent on both sides of the car. On our slow return with our cones, lights flash and a horn blares behind us, Marvin brakes and stirs his hand though the glove box for an anonymous Luger that I know my mother has removed. A pick-up guns around us, and hooting young men in the bed thrust up their arms. Marvin steps from the Cadillac. After the truck disappears he still stands by the open car door, seeming not to hear my questions or the barking dogs. The motor ticks, and I notice that he holds an open penknife.
At home I immediately ask my mother why boys would shout at Marvin. If you’re married to him, how can he be an old bachelor?
Marvin skulks into their room, using the slide bolt to fasten the door behind him.
My mother loved figures. One week she went down to Marvin’s offices to help with the books. From then on she spent more time there than he did, almost salvaging a small-town fortune and no longer speaking warmly to some of his business associates.
At about the same time, more and more frequently I come home from school to find Marvin sitting at the kitchen table in his pajamas. A brown bottle and a short glass stand on the sideboard. Other afternoons he is in bed, and Mayola shushes me. If I’m not quiet, he might burst from the bedroom shouting. Even when I’m very quiet, he might shout from the bed. But not at me. Often at gypsies.
Then Bozo died. I remember the brittle animal, its eyes fixed in a stare, pacing relentlessly throughout the house. Bozo had always avoided me but now bumps into my shins. Here, Bozo. Here, boy.
The little dog moves on past me, past Marvin who has appeared in a doorway. He grips my shoulder. Don’t you know what that is?
It seems now that on the same day he lies in bed speaking to me. Hear that? You know what it means when a dog howls like that?
Later, I wake him to say I don’t hear anything.
In those years I already had memories that came back to me when I slept—memories still familiar to me now many years later. One of them is of a conversation I had with my mother in our previous, rented house. We were eating a nice lunch she had made, and she became animated about something she was telling me. Not paying attention, I interrupted idly to ask what she would do if I threw my butter knife—such implements fascinated me. The question disconcerted her. I put the knife down at once and asked her to finish what she had been saying, but she had forgotten whatever it was. For years afterwards, at unexpected moments or when dreaming, I would grieve, knowing I would never know the cheerful thing she had almost told me—and knowing too that she would never have the pleasure of uttering it to her son.
One night in the blue house, waking from that dream or one like it, I found something unusual: their door stood open and their bed lamps shone severely on their rumpled, vacated sheets. Alarmed, I run through the doorway and veer toward their bathroom. Seeing her helping him onto the toilet, I pick up my foot. One of them screams at me, and I hobble from the room, afraid to look down, knowing we all know I have stepped in his shit.
That fall I see him every morning. When I come into the kitchen, he is at the table looking through the window. Presently he will go back to bed, but it has become important to him to watch the light gather and the early stirrings of the birds and the squirrels and the rabbits. Most mornings he likes to tell me what he has seen through the window, but one morning he gives me troubling advice: When you fight a nigger, never hit him in the head, his head is too hard. It turns out he and Old Tom are just back from insomniac scuffing along before dawn on Grandview, the paved avenue nearest us. According to his account this morning, a young man approached him from behind on the sidewalk, obliging him to stare the man into continuing his passage on the grass.
When Mayola interrupts to give him his insulin, I look away. He knows I don’t like the needle and, even on mornings when he prefers to lower his draw-stringed pajama bottoms and shoot himself in the leg, he watches my face.
Now Mayola moves past me to open and peel down his pajama shirt and dab his swollen upper arm with alcohol. As she puts in the needle, he continues talking to me. I recently have asserted that my favorite baseball player Nelson Fox is a great bunter. Since then Marvin has documented the much greater achievement of his favorite player. Speaking grimly, he tells how Ty Cobb, to rattle opposing infielders, would file his cleats in front of the dugout before the start of a game. I have recently seen a photograph of Ty Cobb, taken after the end of his long career. It struck me then that he resembled Marvin—except for Marvin’s superior white hair. I am about to tell Marvin this when he shakes down his sleeve and glances out the window, then back at me. I sense an appeal in his eyes when he speaks. If you’re scared to die, you mize well dig you a hole and pull the hole in after you.
I, who will never die, look slowly away and sip tan coffee from a tan cup.
Days shorten. I come home in near darkness from Scouts to find an ambulance in the driveway. Mayola tries to stop me, but I cut through the playroom to the back of the house. The shadow of Marvin’s doctor, Skinny Arrington, fills the doorway of the bedroom. Skinny Arrington always acts is if I am his special friend; but it is he who gives me polio and tetanus shots, and the sight of him always makes me uneasy. I try to see around his huge girth as he leans over Marvin, whose bare legs are yellow in the lamplight.
Oddly, I feel myself grow still inside despite the disturbing presence of Skinny Arrington and his black bag in the house. My mother comes past them and takes me aside. I am surprised only by my extreme stillness as she explains about bleeding ulcers and an operation Marvin must have. She says that, as a precaution, she will spend the night with him in the hospital, and she keeps me occupied when medics carry him from the house on a litter. I stand at the playroom’s picture window and watch them hand her and her overnight case into the ambulance after him.
After we have eaten, Mayola rests in her chair in the kitchen murmuring to herself in sympathy for Marvin. I am in the living room bouncing a hollow rubber ball against the wallpaper. The World Series will start soon, and I’m already playing my mental version. I ignore Mayola when she reminds me that throwing a ball in the living room is forbidden.
You go’n find out, boy. You livin’ on a bed a roses, now. But it ain’ go’n last.
Each time I throw the ball, I punctuate its bounce with a curse word. As I expect, Mayola only appears to become angry. With what I interpret as grudging admiration, she accuses me of being mannish. The telephone rings: my mother, calling to tell us the operation was a success and Marvin is out of danger. Later Mayola scarcely complains about her nerves when I leap out from behind a door. Though I am uncatchable, she grins as she lumbers after me around the long dining room table. In the twin beds we talk ourselves to sleep.
I am untying Jane Witherspoon’s sash in the lunch line when I see Mrs. Holliday, the principal, coming toward me with Alice Keaton, a poker friend. Because I think I love Jane Witherspoon, I pluck her sash once more before I step past her scowl toward the two women.
It’s awkward in the car. I associate Alice Keaton’s vigorous brushed-back hair with a certain chow dog that I think she owns. She has explained that my mother needs to see me. Unwilling to question her or to bear the car’s silence, I become garrulous and tell her about school.
Even before I see the many cars lining the borders of the yard, I feel myself become still. The adults in the house, for once, seem not to know what to say to me. Hands pat me toward the living room.
It’s like a party. Mayola, limping in a starched servant’s uniform, carries around coffee on a tray to guests grouped about the furniture. My mother sits on the formal sofa with her closest friends. The worst of it isn’t her eyes, but her raw, reddened nostrils.
When she closes the door of my room behind us, kneels, and tries to begin, I speak first. I know. Marvin’s dead.
I put out my arms and we lean together as she says the rest. A turn for the worst. He was sicker than we knew.
Through the rest of the afternoon, I tire of the attentions of visitors. I want to try to pick up the World Series, but the console in the living room is being used as a serving surface. Eventually my mother lets me go down into a secluded part of the yard, where I begin throwing myself pop-ups with my browned-over hardball. The sun has begun to sink into the woods across the road. On my bare arms I feel hints of the cooler season soon to come.
I heave the ball up, concentrating fiercely on my system of catching or missing it and of counting my steps. Again this year my team, the White Sox, has lost the pennant, but in my league they always win. Nelson Fox comes to bat more than anyone else. I love Nellie Fox: his name, that he’s a squirt like me and almost never strikes out. I throw the ball hard. It snicks through a cluster of pine needles which begin drifting down, then plummets back toward me, scattering them again. I keep on throwing—Nellie Fox is a great fouler of pitches—and remember Marvin talking to me in the kitchen. What do you want? Do you want a pony?
Although I don’t understand it, I have my first inkling that what I want is to take the elephant back to Bessie.
I throw again and think of Marvin’s amusement company across from the train depot. In it he had a private office, one off from the rest of the space, where there’s an ice box, a sofa, and his desk. The ice box usually stands empty except for a pitcher of water, some chilled glasses, and a brown bottle. A half dressed woman on a wall calendar advertises a brand of nickelodeon. Near the calendar are photographs of killed animals, fighting chickens, and Marvin with politicians and athletes. In each, Marvin wears a tie that shines and a starched shirt as white as his hair.
Breeze stirs high in the pines, and the ball thumps down near me. Pressed beneath the glass desk top is an older photograph, of boys swimming in a quarry. Manipulated from somewhere above, the camera caught one of the boys in the instant that he dived out over the rocky water. The boy’s skinny legs and bare butt are pale, but his arms and neck look sun-darkened and leathery. Although his face is averted beneath bowl-cropped hair, I have always assumed it to be Marvin’s. The dive is ungainly, but it commands the sepia gaze of the other boys bobbing in the water.
I stoop for the ball and sling it with an effort that brings me near to falling. It comes down in the brush across the road. I study the thickets between trees, fearful yet eager to glimpse satins, earrings, dark eyes glittering sidewise over swarthy
cheek bones. The breeze shakes webs of fading light but nothing else I can name. Later, when my mother calls down from the glowing windows, I am still thinking that that ended the reign of the gypsies.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“The Reign of the Gypsies” was originally published as fiction. I wasn't very familiar with creative nonfiction in 1980 and, so far as I know, the magazine I’m grateful to for accepting it didn't publish that kind of nonfiction then. This work was my second prose publication. I remember it as being relatively easy to write and as being mostly a matter of putting vivid memories into words. I hope to include it in a collection of nonfiction I’ve been working on concerning the Mississippi I knew prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement. When I finish the collection, I may make two changes to the present piece: 1) Shorten the title to only the word “Gypsies” in order to eliminate the exact parallel between the title and the closing phrase and in order to make it clearer that Marvin, I, and maybe others have within us what is meant by the gypsies he imagined. In that sense, we are the gypsies. 2) Risk a strained verb choice and being overly explicit by changing the final clause to read, “. . . I am still
thinking mistaking that that ended the reign of
the gypsies” because a few readers have told me they took the closing to mean the
reign is over. That’s what I thought too
in that moment in boyhood, but what I saw and aimed to suggest while writing is
different from that. Although I
understood that Marvin was physically gone, on that autumn afternoon in 1953 I
didn’t foresee that, for me, he and the reign of the gypsies wouldn’t end.
ABOUT RANDY BATES
Randy Bates has published a book of nonfiction, Rings: On the Life and Family of Collis Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), which Perseus Books reprinted in digital format; Dolphin Island, a chapbook of poems (Finishing Line Press); and work in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Xavier Review, The Pinch, The Chattahoochee Review, and others. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louisiana Arts Council. He teaches in nonfiction concentration of the MFA program at the University of New Orleans, where he serves as nonfiction editor of Bayou Magazine.