The Department of Social Services caseworker appeared at our door unannounced, like my uncle predicted. We'd already gone over what answers might work best when confronted by a government agency bureaucrat highly inured to vitamin B, C, and D deficiencies, head lice, rotten teeth, and lash marks, not to mention a child drooling while he sabotaged alphabet memorization. I was to use the term "sir" or "ma'am," though I called my uncle plain Cush all the time. When asked about my parents' whereabouts, I'd been tutored not to mention anything about how my father may have killed a racist and then absconded to one of the lesser-known islands located between Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I could choose from "They're on business trying to sell barbed wire for the business" or "They're dead." If asked about how come I got homeschooled, I'd been prompted to admit that it wasn't my parents' idea, that I had a problem way back in first-through-fifth grade beating up other kids on a whim, and that my teachers and classmates' parents worried over school violence. We did not have a name for Asperger Syndrome in the late Seventies/early Eighties. And, to be honest, I liked only to punch people who said stupid things regarding race relations, cafeteria food, TV shows that involved characters with IQs less than 100, bad pop music, antiunion thought, people who thought pro wrestling wasn't a hoax, gun worshipping, and another hundred things. I didn't possess a syndrometobenamedlater. Something about rat tail haircuts set me off, it seemed. Mean, angry, nonplussed, committed kid— that was all—when it came to me.
"You're going to want to use some them big words like 'inured' and 'absconded' and 'nonplussed,' I know," Cush said to me not two weeks before the caseworker showed up uninvited. "You can't use them kinds a words around a person with a bachelor's degree in the sociology. I mean it. You gone have to talk stupid." He pulled his Fu Manchu out at forty-five degree angles so that it looked like a hirsute caret pointing toward his nostrils, as if a copy editor wanted to delete his nose in order to add a word or phrase like "Stop" or "Not now."
This conversation took place in the middle of the night as we snipped somebody's perfectly good barbed wire in hopes of their calling us up later to help them out with new fencing. After my father and mother left, that's what we did. It came off more as an adventure than an act of meanness. We ran Southern Barbed on our own terms. Plus, Uncle Cush kept saying things like "You will understand later" and "We need some money for what's going to happen" and "Goddamn America ain't what it used to be." He said things like "Jesus L. Christ do you know how much I miss Fenfang Yang back in the Vietnam area, the best woman of the universe?" and "You're only fourteen or fifteen."
I didn't answer much back at him. On one occasion I said, "Stretching wire can become debilitating."
He nodded and said, "Hey, if a caseworker shows up, don't use the word 'debilitating,' or that other word you keep using."
I said, "Child labor?"
"Hirsute," he said. "And don't mention child labor, either, goddamn it, unless you want me to quit buying you good used textbooks so you can learn more than anyone elset your age."
The Department of Social Services woman showed up at eleven o'clock in the morning, right when I would've been taking the mandatory seventh grade class in South Carolina history had I gone to Poke Middle. She was an albino whitish woman, as opposed to an albino African-American. It was hard not to stare at her, what with the nearly-opaque skin, naturally platinum hair, and oversized sunglasses normally seen on elderly people exiting an ophthalmologist's office. In the past, Uncle Cush had made a point of introducing me to one-armed men, limpers, the overly obese, and tracheotomy victims so that I would never feel sorry for myself, but he'd forgotten to throw an albino into the mix. Fuck, I'd seen white rabbits with more suntan lines than this particular functionary.
I opened the door and didn't laugh or jump. I said, "Hello." "Are you Saint Arthur Waddell? I'm looking for Saint Arthur Waddell. Could you tell Saint Arthur Waddell that Ms. Perkins from DSS is here to ask him a few questions?"
I said, "I had a feeling," because it all came back to me about my uncle's vision. I said slowly, "Me Saint Arthur. Me go by plain 'Start,' as in the beginning of 'Saint,' and the beginning of 'Arthur.'" I opened the door and half-fanned my arm for her to enter.
Ms. Perkins said, "Thank you, Start! My, what a grownup looking young man you are!"
I wanted to see her pink eyes, of course. I'd read about pink-eyed albinos, who preferred to be called "Pigment Challenged." I said, "Come on in and sit down at the kitchen table," but wondered if the term "PC" came from "Pigment Challenged." It should've. That would've made sense.
Uncle Cush came stomping in from the den. Understand that this was the house where I grew up and the house where Cush and my father grew up. Up until my parents left, Cush lived on some land up the hill, behind the Quonset huts where we kept rolls of barbed wire. After my parents took off he moved in to take care of me. It didn't matter. He said, "Hey," to the DSS worker.
Ms. Perkins said, "Hello! Are you Saint Arthur's father?"
My uncle paused for what became, later, an uncomfortable, telling moment for me. He said, "No. Cush Waddell. Favorite uncle."
Ms. Perkins wrote something in her ledger. For what it's worth, she wore a paisley outfit consisting of mostly greens and purples, which—against her translucent skin—looked like amoebas on a vertical Petri dish. She said all that stuff about where she worked, then, "We been asked to come by check on some things."
My uncle nodded. He said, "I understand." He didn't look at me, but I could feel his thoughts going This is what I was talking about that night when we clipped people's barbed wire so they'd have to order more. I could feel him thinking You don't want to live in a foster home, now, do you, boy? My uncle said, "You want me in or out the room?"
"We ain't accusing no one of nothing," Ms. Perkins said. I looked at her neck and thought about a cave salamander I'd seen once time on ETV. She shuffled into the kitchen and sat down. I wondered if she normally used a cane, a walker, or had someone lift her elbow this way and that.
I was fourteen years old and had been out of the normal school system more than a couple years. My uncle had attended to me less than eighteen months, though it seemed like a lifetime what with his aphorisms, insults, predictions, demands, expectations, and tall tales about Vietnam that probably weren't true. I said, "Guilt has very quick ears to an accusation," which came from Henry Fielding. I could've gotten thrown into a foster home, I thought, for having to read Tom Jones.
Uncle Cush said, "Sit down and make yourself at home. You want any sweet tea? Pulled pork sandwich with or without cole slaw on top of it?"
I sat down. I readied myself. I tried to remember everything my uncle told me to say. Ms Perkins kept her shades on and said No to my uncle, then to me said, "We're just going to go through what the average student should know at your age, at least around here. Can you tell me what six times six equals?"
Man, I didn't wait. I didn't pause. I said, "What is thirty-six!" as if I were on that game show. Ms. Perkins nodded and marked her ledger. She said, "Can you name me five colors?"
"Well," I said, "the primary colors are red, green, and blue. Then there are a bunch of secondary and tertiary colors. Orange, for example, and..."
"Five colors," she said.
"Okay, those primary ones, plus orange, yellow, azure, magenta, purple…"
"Okay," Ms. Perkins said.
My uncle opened up the refrigerator—mistake—and pulled out a can of Budweiser. He said, "My favorite color might be one y'all ain't mentioned yet." He said, "I know I'm not supposed to help out."
Ms. Perkins said, "Very good. Very good Saint Arthur! You know your math and your colors!"
"You knew ahead of time I wasn't the daddy. Was it old Matthew Foy who told y'all on me for taking over Start's upbringing?" Uncle Cush blurted out. "Was it Junie Teter? I'mo tell you one thing—ain't nobody bringing up a better boy than I'm doing right now, goddamn it."
I looked at Ms. Perkins the best I could and said, "One hundred forty-four times ninety nine equals 14,256." I said, "Give me one. Ten thousand divided by pi equals 3,183—check it out." My uncle said, "Hey, did me and you go to school together? I used to pull down the fire alarm thing, you know, and then when everyone went off into the playground, me and this girl would screw on the teacher's desk. I'm talking like twice a week. Was that you? Did you go to Poke Elementary, third grade?"
Ms. Perkins shook her head No and smiled. I could tell that she didn't like my uncle's Fu Manchu. She said to me, "Are you taking any foreign languages? In the seventh grade you should be taking Spanish I or French I."
I said, "Here's my favorite Bush poem, from the Bush people in Zimbabwe."
I started clicking and clucking like no one's business, only because Uncle Cush taught me how to do so, seeing as how I hadn't actually taken any courses in Spanish or French. I went all "Dok dok dok dok-dok dok-dok dok dok dok/, dok dok dok dok dok dok dok dok dok dok/dok, dok dok-dok dok dok-dok dok dok dok," with appropriate facial expressions. I said, "Not only is it Bush, but it follows the same meter as that famous Dylan Thomas poem. How about that?"
My uncle started clapping. Ms. Perkins shook her head twice and wrote down a note.
Not to brag, but when Ms. Perkins came over, according to Uncle Cush, I read on a twenty-ninth grade level. Before my parents took off, they'd attended to my reading the classics—Plato to Faulkner—but then when Cush showed up, and we rifled through the used textbooks at a number of college and university bookstores, I became proficient in the weird shit: Salinger, Cheever, Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, Exley, Gass, Gaddis, and those others. I didn't finish everything put before me, sure, but I probably had a better grasp of, say, Carlos Fuentes, than anyone teaching English or Spanish in Poke, South Carolina. Because I wasn't but fourteen, I never thought to ask, "Hey, Cush, how can a high school graduate and Vietnam War veteran such as yourself know so much about what direction in which to point me?" I guess I figured that every human being one generation older than I— unless they were goodhearted social workers—read four or five hours a day growing up, seeing as the sitcoms of the day offered little in regards to humanist, secular thinking and outright hilarity when it came to human suffering, except for maybe The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle. Gilligan's Island. I Dream of Jeannie. The Beverly fucking Hillbillies.
My parents had me listen to Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, whereas Cush turned me on to the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, plus more-normal Neil Young.
I read literature, and history, listened to music, and knew enough math to figure out my checkbook, in what should've been my seventh grade year. I understood that one of my state's previous senators beat somebody with a cane in the Senate chambers.
But I didn't know biology. I didn't know science worth a shit. You'd think that I spawned from a tribe of holy-roller, anti-evolution fundamentalists.
Because my uncle foresaw questions and/or developments in advance—for all I knew he'd already predicted this particular social worker's next maneuver some years ago—he said, "Hey, let's jump right over to biology. Let me get out the Operation game." Listen, it didn't take biology acumen to succeed in the Milton Bradley game of skill, Operation. It took steady hands. The world's best biologist in the world—let's say Lewis Thomas, at the time—would've failed miserably at Operation, what with Dr. Thomas's probable digital shakiness. Dr. Stephen Hawking? The world's worse Operation player. High stakes Las Vegas poker players might not know the difference between a spleen and a freckle, but by God they can play some fucking Operation.
Cush left me there with Ms. Perkins. He went looking for the game, which we'd played about nightly for a month in the upstairs room that had the most unstable flooring, which made it that much more difficult to perform a successful extraction without touching the sides and killing the patient.
Ms. Perkins whispered, "If I bring out a doll, can you show me where your uncle's touched you?"
I nodded and whispered back, "I don't need a doll. I can show you right here," and took my left index finger to point at my right palm. "Sometimes when I make him proud, he shakes my hand." My uncle walked into the room with Cavity Sam and said, "You ain't asked, but I'll be the fifth person to admit I don't take care of myself. First there's good George Francis, the Lebanese liquor store owner. He'll say I partake of too much bourbon. Then that girl Patsy, or Patty, or Bonnie over at Poke Sack 'n' Go, where I buy my Winstons. You know we're in the barbed wire fence business here, and we're up against these goddamn fancy rock fence people—and my main business enemy is this guy Looper up at Carolina Rocks who wants me to die so he can talk people from wire to rock easier. He's number three. He's always sending me moonshine and questionable baloney. Start here works as person number four, telling me to eat more vegetables and stay away from sausage. And then there's me. But by God I make sure Start doesn't drink, smoke, or eat sausage."
Ms. Perkins probably stared hard at Uncle Cush, but I couldn't tell what with her sunglasses. She said, "Are y'all from around here originally?"
My uncle set down the game. He said, "I just put in brand new triple-A batteries in this thing, so watch out. Old Cavity Sam's nose might light up just from the tweezers getting close to the edges."
I said, "I can sing you a bunch of body organs to the opening tune of the National Anthem, if you'd rather I do that. Listen to this: Colon stomach spleen! Lungs, heart skin kidney, brain!" I said, "Uncle Cush taught me how to list off the bones to the tune of one of those other famous songs."
Ms. Perkins rotated her head in tiny circles, looking downward to Operation. She said, "I'm not very good when it comes to eye-hand coordination. As y'all have probably noticed, I possess albinism. Did y'all recognize it right away?"
I didn't know what to say, because, probably, I was fourteen years old. By that time I'd met little people, about a dozen men who put pistols toward their heads and either shot out an eyeball or lost a lower jaw but still lived, a hydrocephalic, some microcephalics—we still called them waterheads and pinheads, even though it probably wasn't right—and a number of cross-eyed and cockeyed people. I'd dealt with the blind, the deaf, the deaf and blind, and one time saw a woman at Poke's All Bowed Up archery shop who was born without elbows. No albinos, though.
"Pick up those electronic tweezers, Start, and pick you out whatever you need. This is biology in its most meaningful and basic form!"
I said to the DSS caseworker, "This isn't how it's played. Usually there are two sets of cards—Specialist cards and Doctor cards. We used to have those things, but we played outside one time and the wind blew them away." This wasn't the truth. I beat Uncle Cush one night and he took the cards and threw them into our woodstove. I said, "I think I'll go for Writer's Cramp" and successfully pulled out the pencil stuck in the middle of Cavity Sam's forearm.
My uncle said, "Good man!" and shook my hand. He said to Ms. Perkins, "Pick you whatever you want."
She had her head down close to the board—like an inch away. She had the tweezers up against her temple, nearly tangling in her orange hair. She said, "I'm going for Wish Bone!" and immediately stuck the tweezers on Sam's red nose, then scraped her way all over the board, from Adam's Apple to Broken Heart to Wrenched Ankle. She zapped Butterflies in the Stomach, and Charley Horse, and Wish Bone, and Spare Ribs. At least that's how I remember it. I know that we couldn't play anymore because the red nose flashed so many times successfully that the brand new batteries gave out.
"I'm better at some other games," Ms. Perkins said. "I can bowl, for example, if it's at night." She said, "Look, you seem fine, Start. This was a waste of my time, and yours."
For some reason my uncle decided to say at this point, "They ought to've put a pelvic bone in this game. One time I was traveling alone over in Laos and I kind of, you know, made an impression on this little woman. Well, you know how those Asian women tend to be skinny and all. You can't barely even tell when one them's pregnant! Anyway, I was going down on her right well thinking 'This is the hairiest quim ever,' but as it ended up, this little thing gave birth at that very moment, and I was licking her newborn's head. Goddamn. That was something."
Ms. Perkins opened up her mouth but no noise emitted from her throat. I stared hard, wondering if she might look like a cottonmouth behind her molars, incisors, and bicuspids—I might not've known anything about biology, but I knew some shit about dentistry, probably because I'd read both Jaws and Marathon Man. She said, "Mr. Waddell!" like that, all alarm and disgust.
I said, "Cush. Come on. Tell her you're kidding." To Ms. Perkins I said, "I apologize for my uncle."
"What I'm doing is this," Uncle Cush said, picking up the Operation game and standing up. "I'm showing that to know appropriate behavior, one must know inappropriate behavior. That's what I'm showing young nephew Start here. See? He'll now know not to go out into a public venue or job interview and say such egregious blasphemy."
I stuck my hand out to shake. I'd taught him both "egregious" and "blasphemy," though I sometimes didn't think he listened to me. To Ms. Perkins I said, "It's true. It's straight out of one of the either late nineteenth century or early twentieth century philosophers. It's either from Bertrand Russell or Ludwig Wittgenstein."
Ms. Perkins wrote down something on her chart. She said, "You two are a couple of japers, aren't you? Ha ha. You got me there, Mr. Waddell. Do you mind if I call you plain Cush? I'm sorry, but I should've introduced myself as Carlotte. I'm Carlotte Perkins. Please feel free to call me Carlotte.
Later on, Uncle Cush—I think we were driving to a literacy association's used book sale so he could pick up a selection of biographies on major American industrialists—told me that it was at the moment Ms. Perkins asked if we japed people that he knew she needed a man like him. At the time, though, there at the kitchen table with the image of a newborn Asian child emerging into a war-torn country, I could think only of various members of the animal kingdom licking afterbirth.
"Like Charlotte without the H?" Cush said. "Carlotte. H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. You know what that means, don't you?"
Carlotte Perkins either nodded or trembled. She said, "Is it my denomination, or is it hot in here?"
Ms. Perkins fanned her neck with the clipboard she carried. I looked at my uncle and could tell that he wasn't going to stop. He would test this poor bureaucratic woman, fragile pigment or not. I'd seen it enough, before and after my parents "disappeared." Uncle Cush would start up a conversation with a stranger at, say, the Mighty Pump gas station somewhere in the county. He'd let out a "damn," and then a "hell." If the bystander didn't flinch Cush would say something sacrilegious and within three sentences sound much like Lenny Bruce reciting a George Carlin routine. Before his tank filled he might say, "That motherfucker inside needs to get that goddamn muscle-bound mouse painted on his sign and replace it with a big-dicked Mickey having at it with that Minnie bitch."
And then I'd say, "We have to go," or "He doesn't get out much," or "He has that psychological problem."
"Okay, I tell you what else," Cush said to Ms. Perkins. "I feel as though I need to put it all on out there, you know, to prove how I'm the best guardian possible for young Start here. I don't know how the Department feels about having firearms in the house in general, or hunting in particular. We ain't got no firearms in this house. Search all you want. Bring in a dog, or a giant magnet. But I do hunt, nearly every day during season so's to pack the freezers we got down at the Quonset hut over there, other side of the property. I bet I'm like you, Carlotte—I don't think hunting Bambi with a .30.30 is all that fair. Bow and arrow, maybe. Traps like I seen in Vietnam, yes."
She said, "You're on the verge of receiving a positive assessment. It's probably best that you don't say anything else."
"It's been a pleasure to make your acquaintance," I said, and stood up from the table. I tried to think of something intelligent to say in the realm of biology, and unfortunately blurted out, "They say skin is the largest organ!"
Uncle Cush went and turned the overhead light off. He said, "I should've thought to've done that earlier. I apologize. My fault. Anyway, listen—and Start here can tell you—I hunt with a nail gun, that's all. On a good lucky day here in the yard I can kill a deer and mount its head on the wall simultaneously, you know what I mean?"
I laughed. I let out an uncontrolled nervous laugh that came out sounding like a tommy gun, maybe through some kind of subliminal cause and effect what with the artillery talk. I said, "Come on back any time," to the social worker.
My uncle put out his palm for the woman to continue sitting. "Hey, back in Vietnam one time, I was doing this USO show, because I was a champion spoon player, you know. They brought me on stage, but the lights were so harsh that they'd put sandpaper duct tape around the perimeter so people wouldn't fall off the stage. I think they got the idea from an albino guitar player of some repute. This was a real USO show, what I'm talking about, with Playboy bunnies and all that. Though none of them were pretty as you, Carlotte."
Ms. Perkins said, "It's a lifesaver, that duct tape. Sometimes I'm asked to give presentations on the social worker lecture circuit." I didn't say, "There's a social worker lecture circuit? Are you kidding me?" though I thought it.
He said, "There's a social worker lecture circuit? Are you kidding me? Hey, is there some kind of newsletter? I'd like to attend some them talks. I'm always looking for ways to better educate my nephew."
"There is a newsletter!" Ms. Perkins said.
I thought, Okay, this would be a great time for her to leave with a good impression of the Waddell family as it were. But Cush said, "At that same USO show, Chuck Norris showed up. I'm talking Chuck Norris the martial arts movie star. He'd been Air Force, back before Vietnam. Anyway, he came out on stage blindfolded and did some moves, not even worried about that sandpaper duct tape. Pretty fucking amazing. Then he broke some bricks and boards and cement blocks. They brought out some kind of concrete life-size statue of a Cong, and he kicked it right in half. I was backstage and didn't have the best vantage point. It might've supposed to've been Bruce Lee he kicked in half, but it don't matter. What a man, Chuck Norris."
I'd heard this story a few times already and didn't want him to continue. First off, none of it was true, outside of Chuck Norris having been in the Air Force back in the late 1950s up until a few years before the gigantic grind of Vietnam. I said, "Stop, please." "I know who Chuck Norris is," the social worker said. "A lot of my families—especially the white ones living in trailers—have posters of Chuck Norris in their dens and bedrooms."
"I don't want to say him and me got close," Cush said.
I grabbed his arm, which he'd sent above his head and held still, as if he had just thrown a tomahawk. "Not now."
Cush hitched his pants. "But Chuck was there a few days. I got to run into him on a basis. Soldiers in the field have urges, you know."
Ms. Perkins made a noise. Fifteen years later I would hear a woman make that same sound, which was the exact replica of a green and black poison dart frog—Dendrobates auratus, technically. Anyway, these days, one can go to the internet and find that sound. Back then, Ms. Perkins's emission came out as surprising as a rubber band ball unceasing itself.
I said, "Not now. Please stop." I looked at Ms. Perkins and said, "It's a lie."
She took off her sunglasses and said, "Tell me about lies, boy. I've heard them all." She took off the glasses, but had her eyelids shut, then balanced the glasses back on her nose.
"Damn," said Uncle Cush. "That kind of throwed me. Anyway, when Chuck Norris beats off, entire fully-formed children come out the end of his pecker. I'm talking one time I saw him behind a stand of bamboo and all these white kids shot out the end of his dick. No one believes me, but it's true."
I got up from the table. I looked down at Cavity Sam and raised my eyebrows. Would my own nose one day turn so red? Would a real surgeon look into my cavities at some point and exclaim, "Well, this explains some things."
What would happen to me if I got sent to a normal foster family? I wondered.
The caseworker stood up and didn't laugh. She said, "I don't want to say that I have the gift of soothsaying, Cush, but I'm thinking you and I might run into each other before long. Do you like martinis? You seem to be the kind of man who could make a perfect martini. After listening to the kind of shit and lies I come across daily, a perfect martini or four settles me down enough to feel like there's hope for the real world."
She took off her glasses again and opened her lids. I stared. Ms. Perkins eyes weren't pink, of course, but a pale blue on par with an abnormally bright sky, or a venerable ex-coquette's perfectly sculpted hair, or the weakest visible veins rippling across the dugs of a shirtless crone. Uncle Cush said, "Let me walk you out to your car."
I sat in the kitchen alone for an hour. I thought how, metaphorically, the heart was an organ much bigger than skin. It's what I thought, I swear—maybe because I'd read too much Flaubert by the time I was fourteen. Maybe because I'd seen hearts still beating in fish and deer, long after the skin quit twitching. I felt good about not saying, "I knew you were going to say, 'I don't want to say that I have the gift of soothsaying,'" seeing as I hailed from a tribe of con men, visionaries, hoydens, liars, quick-tempered reactionaries, contrarians, and hardworking near-anarchists, thus having visionary status myself. I considered looking out the window, but didn't want to see my uncle's truck bouncing up and down, or no truck at all.