Saturday, March 13, 2010

5. PAPA AND THE CHIlDREN

Bonnie was already six years old by the time I arrived at the Papa's chalet in Atlanta, and she thought she ran the place.  She would have, if not for Scarlett and Mammy.  She and her mother were too much alike to get along, even her hair and blue eyes favored the O’Haras.  “Spoiled,” Scarlett called her, but it never stuck when she said it, because Papa didn’t care.  Bonnie was Scarlett in miniature - - uncontrollable - - which Rhett seemed to adore, unfortunately.  A lot of fathers dote on their daughters.  But mothers don’t resent their own babies, not the way Scarlett resented Bonnie’s strong will.
She seemed in charge on the day I arrived, as it was her, rather than Scarlett, who swing open the front door for me.  For a moment she stood her ground and looked me over.
Without a word to me, she suddenly turned and yelled, “Jacques is here.”  I hadn’t even spoken!  She turned her back and ran upstairs, leaving the door wide open.  Mammy appeared a moment later and helped with my bags.
Bonnie had learned to answer the door by watching Ella, her eight-year-old step sister.  Ella was big enough to actually swing the massive, oak door by herself, but she only dared do it with Scarlett’s permission.  Ella worshipped Scarlett, and earning her favor meant everything.  Ella was chubby and dull, in both coloring and wit, like her father Frank.  Like him, contentment for her lay in pleasing Scarlett, and being as near to her as possible.  Scarlett demanded nothing less.  Mammy noticed how little Ella withdrew into herself when she was idle, but she sprung to life whenever Scarlett called.  It was an unfair footrace between little Ella and Prissy, Scarlett’s colored attendant, to run out of the kitchen, down the hallway and upstairs.  Mammy sometimes intervened, reining in Prissy’s skirt while Ella scampered away.    
 I learned quick that I dared not tangle with Bonnie, any more than I’d tangle with Scarlett.  On the contrary, her tantrums against her mother came in handy to me.  Once, Bonnie’s tantrum won permission for us to share Rhett’s Louisiana coffee. I had been missing coffee since I left home, since Scarlett had refused to serve it to “the children.” 
It happened when I was only ten, and taking my meals with Bonnie, Ella, and Wade in the kitchen.  I was still new to the family.  Wade was just eleven, and the girls were still wearing bibs.  They served us in stoneware bowls.  Mammy hovered over us and kept Bonnie in check.  Rhett hardly ever came into the kitchen, so Bonnie didn’t always get her way.  Tantrums irritated Mammy.  Those were the only times I remember when I could bear sitting at table with that child, bless her soul.
It was Bonnie, strangely enough, who demanded coffee.  She had developed a taste for sugary café au lait after tasting papa’s.  He had fed her sips from his own cup.  She demanded it whenever she smelled coffee brewing.  When Mammy told her she wasn’t allowed, she stomped her foot and spilled half-a-cup of milk on the table.  Rather than spank her, Rhett told Mammy to serve us all.  Bonnie was happy until she got what she asked for.  One sip of bitter black coffee with chicory cured her of her cravings, and Wade and Ella too.  I proceeded to thicken it with sugar and drank all four cups.  Bonnie seemed jealous of me, but kept quiet.
The summer I arrived at the chalet, Wade Hamilton was too busy with swimming and bicycle racing to take any notice of me at all.  I was terribly envious of him, since Papa devoted so much time and attention to him.  I suppose Papa’s kindness to Wade was part pity, because Wade had been fatherless all his life.  By the same token, I myself was desperately needy.  But I was no equal to Wade, since he was almost a year older.  I could barely swim and I’d never ridden a bicycle.  Thanks to Papa’s affection for him, Wade had become a dynamo for his age, and I couldn’t keep up, trailing behind him on foot. 
The nearest race course for cyclers was over a mile away, at Piedmont Park, made of hard-pack clay that circled the pond.  It was Atlanta’s biggest swimming pond, and everybody came out on sunny days.  Wade’s cycle was a heavy steel rig by Starley of England, called a “Velocipede.”  I never dared mount it, since it had no kick stand, like the later bicycles did.  No inflatable rubber tires existed yet either, although the rumor of them was everywhere.  Cyclists rode on hard wheels over courses of hard packed clay.  Needless to say, the bricktop of Piedmont Road was too smooth for hard wheels, so cyclists took a lot of falls.  Cobblestone alleys on the other hand, were too bumpy.  Wade was scraped and scarred from wrecks and scrapes.  Of course, Scarlett always shrieked at him for his recklessness, but he was a horse out of the barn.  Rhett himself had bought him the Starley, after weeks of his begging and pleading.  Wade had pledged to ride only on the hard-packed course at the Park, and never on the streets.  
Rhett and Scarlett took me along with the family to the park to watch Wade race on one of my first Saturdays in town.  Rhett wore a wide brim and Scarlett, Bonnie, and Ella wore sun bonnets, because it was September.  The carriage’s canvas top and awning kept us from burning.  The pond was still open for swimming, and we had brought our swimming suits.  The starting line was right in front of the bath house. 
Papa parked our carriage on the curb of the race course and it made a nice perch above the heads of spectators.  From behind, we got the shouts of swimmers, almost close enough to splash us.  Soon our running boards were loaded down with strangers who began crowding each other for a view.  Back at the rear, a couple of scruffs elbowed each other for the last spot of runner space.  One had an eye out, the other hobbled on a crutch.  Up in the driver’s seat, Rhett stood up, reached back over our heads with his riding crop and poked them both off the end, and they stumbled away.
“Curs.”
The rest of us forgot about them, but Papa knew better.  A few minutes later he looked back over his shoulder and swatted them again, back on the carriage.  The one-eye was on the running board, and the lame one was perched on the fender, which was bending under his weight.  Before we knew it, Rhett had hopped out and lit upon the lame man with his riding crop in one hand and his derringer in the other, cocked and aimed.  “Filthy ass!  Provoke me will you?”  Scarlett muffled her own screech, but another woman screamed at the sight of the gun.  Rhett whacked the cur’s shoulder so hard it tore his shirt.  Mercifully, Rhett checked his second swing. The cur kept his footing somehow, and hobbled away through the crowd.  All the strangers on the running board had scampered, by the time Rhett turned around again, and he stooped to examine the carriage’s fender for damage.  He stood up again, tossed his crop over to me, pocketed his derringer.  He looked to the frightened woman who was shielding her small daughter from the sight.  “I beg your pardon Ma’am.”
She blinked, then nodded her head.
He pointed to the running board and said, “Be my guest, please, you and the girl.  Scarlett!  Give’em a hand.”
Scarlett hardly noticed, as she was fretting over Wade.  He was already scraped and scarred on the elbows, and he’d refused to wear long sleeves or gloves. 
“Too hot,” he’d said.  Now, in his tank top and goggles, he was lost in the crowd of cyclists at the starting line, crouched over their handlebars, and poised for the gun.  I managed to recognize him, although the goggle straps pushed his light brown hair up on end.  I pointed. 
“Where?” Scarlett and the girls begged.  I held my index finger up to her eye.  She squinted and said, “There?”  The girls scrambled into her lap to see.
The starting gun cracked, and soon the cyclists were out of sight. 
A few minutes later, the girls were getting bored and hot.  The leading cyclists appeared again to complete their first lap.  Wade wasn’t among them, as far as we could tell.  Rhett looked to Scarlett and to me, and none of us could recognize Wade or keep count of his laps.  An eight lap race would take some time, so we decided to take our leave, and return later for the finish. 
Bonnie and Ella were dying to go swimming in the pond, where most of the other children were. 
Scarlett said, “It’s too hot, you’ll get burned.  Stay here in the shade.”
Both girls turned to Rhett and climbed up onto the front seat to tug at his shirt, begging “Take us, please.”
“Who’ll guard your Mamma from those curs?” he said, and pulled Bonnie’s arms up and put them round his neck.  Nose to nose, Bonnie shook her head, and frowned and fussed.  He chuckled at her, which vexed her more. 
He couldn’t refuse her for long, which she seem to know.  He dodged her nose and turned to me.  “Maybe your cousin Jacques will watch over Mamma.”
I was hot, and I wanted a swim. Nevertheless, I obeyed Rhett,  since I owed him everything I had in the world.
Would he jump in too?  Standing before me in polished boots and felt hat, I couldn’t imagine him ducking into the bathhouse stall and emerging barefooted.  But I hadn’t yet learned that nothing was out of the question to him, if Bonnie begged for it.  Rhett was a different man around her, and I hated to see it.
Scarlett obviously had never had any intention of swimming, but she had packed bathing suits for the girls, which Prissy unpacked.  For Rhett too, she’d packed bathing attire, folded neatly with the rest.  I suspected that it was fancier than the common overalls that the working men wore, but I couldn’t guess what it would look like.  When Rhett seemed willing, I was amazed. 
“Papa, you need a suit.”  
“Yep.  Can’t wear trousers into the drink.  You sit here and mind your Aunt.”  He took a fresh cigar between his teeth and handed me the reins to the carriage.  He climbed to the ground, then lifted Bonnie off her seat and into the air.  Then Ella.  Prissy followed them, feeling her way down the running board like a blind girl, toting a mound of bathing suits and towels.
When Rhett emerged from the bathhouse, he didn’t brandish a sailor’s tattoo or wear a captain’s cap.  After all of Aunt Scarlett’s exaggeration of his high seas blockade-running, folks might’ve expected him to shout “Ahoy,” and raise the Jolly Roger over the dock and bathhouse.  Rather,   he was dapper as ever in his serge knickers and long sleeve bloomer - - vain actually - - compared to the half-naked hicks all around him, in their cut-off overalls.  Fashionable dress was such a habit that I’d never seen him barefoot, and heaven forbid he should appear bare-chested at a public pond.  So, I actually blushed on his behalf when I caught sight of his calves and feet, that were pink as a sow’s.  For his sake, I hoped the sand would quickly coated his legs, to veil their paleness.  I assumed that his vanity was taking a bruising, since he had never shone bare skin in public.  Rather, he had worn every fashionable accessory his haberdasher could provide, from dickeys to handkerchiefs. 
I had seen how much pleasure Rhett took in his own adornment, before I ever arrived in Atlanta.  In New Orleans, he had gotten irate with a certain tailor over a pair of silk gloves the tailor had made.  Rhett had wanted them dyed the color forest green, to exactly match the color of woolen waistcoat of that hue that the tailor had previously made him.
His broad brimmed hat held firm to his brow, and he pulled matches from his pocket and lit his cigar, water be damned.  Wading was so far from his mind that he didn’t even test the water’s chill. 
Rhett refused to go near the water until Bonnie came out, dripped all over him, and pulled him down the sloping beach.  He finally put his toes in, since he was practically soaked already, and his cigar had been doused.
Bonnie couldn’t swim, and she was too impatient to listen to Ella’s advice about holding her breath.  She had no fear since she’d never been dunked before.  When she saw kids noisily jumping off the dock, was determined to jump off the dock and splash like the expert swimmers.  Fathers were standing chest-deep and catching kids as young as toddlers, so she begged Rhett to do the same.  After she had coaxed Rhett into the water, she turned around, got out, hopped up onto the dock.  While Rhett was only ankle deep, she ran up to the deep end, toed the edge and yelled, “Geronimo!”
“Bonnie!  Get back - - Stop.”  He shoved past a fellow in rolled-up street pants, who stumbled and splashed to his knees.  Fortunately, the man’s curses were drowned by Rhett’s hollering.  I’d never heard Rhett holler before, and I never again saw any man thrash the water as he did at that moment.  His sturdy serge togs dragged against his submerged thighs. 
Rather than discouraging her, Rhett’s reaction invited her to jump with abandon, since jumping was now safe.  A six-year-old’s leap is short, however, and she couldn’t reach Papa’s arms. She flailed and squealed.  Her hair was the only thing that floated.
Rhett later told me that underwater, Bonnie’s bloomers filled like balloons and anchored her down.  Underwater to his chest, he hoisted with all his might, and almost sunk.
Bonnie spewed a mouthful of green and gasped, while Rhett held her tight, wiped her eyes, and waded back to dry land.
From that day on, Rhett and Bonnie’s fates seemed forever tied to the brutality of nature.  Rhett had fought it that day, but we knew who was stronger.  Later, I remembered it as a portent of tragedy to come to Bonnie.
Shivering from fright though wrapped in a towel, Bonnie was a different child, humbled for the moment by mother nature herself. 
Meanwhile, the official had announced the final lap.  Excited race fans had swarmed to the finish line.  They crowded the track, craning for a chance to see the first cyclist round the final turn.  Cheers greeted him, as soon as he appeared in the distance, and hats and visors flew into the air above him as he as he streaked across the finish line.  Applause continued for a few moments, as dozens of riders arrived home, and but Scarlett and I hardly clapped, since Wade was nowhere in sight.  Soon, we feared an awful coincidence had occurred, such that he’d suffered some accident along the race course somewhere, and it had occurred simultaneously with his half-sister Bonnie’s little mishap.
Having failed to finish, Wade coasted slowly into view on a wobbly front wheel.  Noisy spectators had already crowded the track and mobbed the winner,   who sat perched on his cycle just past the finish line, wearing a ribbon.  
Wade seemed exhausted.  He brightened-up when a fellow cyclist approached and gave a hearty shout.  He consoled Wade and wrapped arms around him.  They examined Wade’s dented wheel and cursed his rotten luck. 
With Bonnie in his arms, Papa patted Wade’s back.  I was amazed at his tenderness, since it was the only time I saw Papa touch him in public.  We all returned to the carriage and Wade began strapping his bicycle to the running board.
Papa allowed me to brace his elbow as he stepped up and laid Bonnie on the seat.  For once in her life, Bonnie was docile, with bloodshot eyes.
Scarlett seemed annoyed about the accident at the lake.  “That’ll teach you, Miss Precocious.  You’ll learn to be careful.”  She turned to Papa.  “More of that would do her good, Rhett.  Hear me?  You should spank that child when she acts up.  She’d be sweeter.”
“She’s already the sweetest in the world.  It wouldn’t be healthy to be any sweeter.”
“She’s got no more respect for her elders than a bumble bee.  Father O’Kelley says, ‘If you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child.’  Why don’t you spank her?”
         “Same reason you don’t, I suspect.”
         “It’s the father’s place.”  Scarlett turned back to the children.  “Sit up now, and always listen to your elders.”
Ella heard her, but Bonnie didn’t budge.  When Papa was around, she ignored Scarlett altogether. 
 “They’re too waterlogged to listen,” Rhett said.  “Besides, Mammy prods and nags these girls from morning to night.  She knows a lot more about home training than Father O’Kelley.  From the driver’s seat, Rhett turned to Bonnie and said, “Mammy keeps after you, doesn’t she, Honey Pie?”
“I hate Mammy.” 
As soon as Rhett took up the reins, Trotter, the former harness racer, tossed his head and kicked the dust.  I rushed to the front seat by Rhett, and looked for a way to be useful to him.  After we were out of the crowd, he slapped the reins and Trotter lurched ahead to her natural pace.  Soon everyone was quiet and tired from all the excitement.  With an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth, and the reins in his hand, Rhett began talking over his shoulder to Wade, who sat right behind him, facing rear.  Rhett took the opportunity to reminisce on his own past, like father to son, to pass along his insight.  I wasn’t jealous of Wade for getting all Papa’s attention, since Papa spoke it straight into my ear.  “My old man promised to teach me to ride, but we never got out of the barn - - I swear - - he never meant to do it in the first place.  He only promised it to please my mot  her, who had always wanted to see her son riding down Broad Street in the New Year’s Parade, in formation with the Mounted Militia.”
RHETT WAS NEVER A SEA CAPTAIN
The accident at the pond gave the lie to her fantasies of Rhett being a seafaring blockade-runner.   Rhett had no brine in his veins, and he was better suited to Atlanta’s red clay than to water. 
At the pond, Scarlett had been pleased with the effect of Papa’s dashing swimming attire, despite the fact that he detested the water.  He was never a sea captain, as GONE WITH THE WIND said, though he owned a cargo ship.  The myth had served Scarlett’s purposes, as eager as she was to help his reputation.  It made him seem loyal to the Confederacy.
Everyone knew of his disloyal profiteering from Georgians during the war.  Shrewdly, Scarlett said he was gallant and loyal to The Cause because he imported essentials like sewing needles and sugar, which had become scarce.  In reality, Papa never personally ran a blockade.  A cargo ship that he owned gained passage, but only rarely.  Otherwise the Yankees’ blockade of Charleston would have failed. 
Concerning profiteering, he never denied it.  His prices were indeed exorbitant.  He admitted gouging his own people in their time of need.  To deny these things would only have made him a liar in their eyes.  Ultimately, it was his own honesty that impressed Atlantans, whether or not they ever forgave him for profiteering.
Later in the evening of the accident at the lake, I found Papa and Scarlett sitting in rockers on the front porch.  “Scarlett said, you sometimes piloted the Stardancer yourself.  I never knew you were a seafarer.”
“Hogwash.  I’m the owner, not the pilot.”
“Owner - - Captain - - no difference,” she said.
“No sailor wears a suit like this.  Only a city slicker,” Rhett said.
“A gentleman.  It’s handsome.”
“A Navy Captain would wear oil skins,” I said.
“Navy?  How would a Navy Captain make a living in Atlanta, Georgia?  Canoeing the Chattahoochee?  Think business.  Think money!  And stop arguing with your aunt.”
I never swallowed her bait again, about Rhett or anyone else, and I determined to know Rhett for myself, man to man.    

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