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Preface & Reader Response



Chuck was an early teacher of mine. He was expert at teasing his brother Ricky.

 


THE PERSONAL UNIVERSE



KICKIN' COUSINS

by Jerry Murley

When I was growing up in Frayser on the north side of Memphis, it seems that my cousins and I were always together. We didn't go to the same school, but we were, save for a busy highway dividing us, within easy biking distance from one another. We often rode bikes to the local movie theater for a matinee. I think we only paid a quarter for a movie on Saturdays. Milk Duds were my candy of choice. If the movie was really scary, I could count on my cousin Chuck to disappear, either by ducking down behind the seat back in front or by fleeing to the concession lobby, just as things got terrifying on the big screen. The screams of a full house of kids were apparently all it took to keep adults out of the theater. Disinclined to mobility at the moment, the rest of us grimaced and shut our eyes at the horrors on screen. When he was younger, Chuck was also afraid to sit on Santa's lap at Court Square or Goldsmith's department store. There was speculation that Chuck's poor hearing in one ear contributed to his early santaphobia. However, being one year older, perhaps Chuck was more perceptive about the creepier aspects of old St. Nick, sides that I did not recognize at the time.

Often my sister Debbie and I would spend the night with cousins Chuck, Rick and Sharman at Uncle Johnny and Aunt Mildred's house. Sometimes we would stay there for a couple of days. In my mind, it was a boys' house. There were plenty of battles waged in Chuck and Rick's room, where there was a black and white TV set. Once during a extended stay, we discovered a mouse near the kitchen; as we scrambled to run from the mouse, it hopped up Chuck's trouser leg. It was priceless to watch the jig that Chuck danced as a consequence.

Aunt Mildred operated a beauty salon from the back room of the house. With the kids, a dog, a maid, an assistant beautician, and the patronesses, Aunt Mildred was more often than not engaged in business. That distraction left the boys to do their will outside and in.

Their family also had a barn with a mule. There was a big field beside their house and between the back of the property and the railroad tracks. We spent many a wasteful hour watching trains passing to and from Memphis. At least once the mule chased Debbie, who ran screaming across the fenced lot to one of my parents; the story is that the mule was probably attracted to her long blond hair. At some point in his early life, my Uncle Johnny had to have rabies shots due to being bitten by a horse. Therefore, it was not irrational, given our family history, to be wary of mules.


To my sister's and my wife's regret, Chuck was an early teacher of mine. He was expert at teasing his brother Ricky. With a few simple quick words and a laugh – dagger stabs really – he could drive Ricky into fits of frenzy. Ricky would rub the end of a baseball bat in the guts of a dead frog and chase us all over the yard and up the road. Before we could finally settle down to sleep, Chuck would so needle Ricky that pillows were sure to fly across the bedroom. Fists were rarely employed with much seriousness, but tackles, slaps, and shoves sure were. It was a great show for me, because I was rarely on the throwing or the receiving end. My function was amazement and unceasing laughter, except when I was running from one of Ricky's outrageous escalating attacks. Then everyone ran.

We did not go to the same schools, however we did go to the same church at times. And we would see one another when the whole family drove in separate cars down to Camp Zion, where my grandfather had contributed to the heated evangelical endeavors of a fire-and-brimstone Mississippi preacher. Then we spent our time playing in the sawdust during tent services or stuffing ourselves silly with fried chicken and black-eyed peas at the supper following the preacher's imaginative performance.

When I was about ten, my father, his father, and my Uncle Johnny moved all the family to Houston, Texas, to relocate and rebuild homes that were displaced by the new freeway system. Texas was a wild magnification of what we had tended to do in Frayser. We attended the same church and we played football on the church team. My cousins' home was again battle territory for us boys. We would watch war movies in the den at night and reenact the battle with the help of Chuck's teasing of Ricky. After we managed to overturn a chair or a couch or throw one another to the floor too loudly, my Uncle Johnny would come and threaten armageddon and return to the bedroom. We would quieten down for 15 or 20 minutes and then all hell would break lose again. Another thing we did together was to make joint family trips to Galveston beach for the day on Saturdays. I remember some unseen water monster covering Chuck in red, stinging whelps that sent him straight out of the surf with yelps. Later, in high school, Galveston was Chuck's stomping ground as he became interested in surfing.

While we were in Houston, Chuck, Rick and I were sometimes dropped off by our dads in faraway neighborhoods where our dads and grandfather had rebuilt a moved home. We were to cut grass outside and wait until someone picked us up hours later. The grass was sometimes nearly knee high and difficult to mow. We were always on the lookout for snakes. And, as with everything involving our accompanying our dads or grandfather on business outings, we would wait and wait for them to pick us up and return home. The waits seemed forever at times, but before hopelessness could get a firm grip on us, we stumbled on a way to distract ourselves. Hot, exhausted, and perhaps a little apprehensive of the neighborhoods that we were stranded in, we bolstered each other by teasing, fooling around with anything that crossed our path, and mere mutual presence until a car eventually arrived for us.

About two years later, in 1961, my own family moved back to Memphis, and the paths of the cousins diverged for about six or seven years, except for the Houston cousins periodic visits to Memphis and my spending a week in Houston after the seventh or eighth grade. From that period I remember that the boys' bathroom had a stack of comic books a foot high across from the toilet. It was still a guys' environment. During that time Rick got wilder and Chuck got bigger, eventually playing high school football.

In about 1964 or 1965, when my paternal grandparents were in their late sixties, they lived for a while somewhere northwest of the North Watkins and Jackson Avenue intersection in Memphis. Chuck and I were visiting, and possibly Rick, Deb and Sharman were all there too. Chuck and I had just started or were about to start high school. I recall us walking several blocks away in the neighborhood and seeing a black boy about twelve years old entertaining himself by sliding down the slight incline of a ditch on a flattened cardboard box. Chuck and I joined in the play for a few minutes, and we were all getting along fine when the boy's mother came outside and yelled for her son not to fool with any white boys and for us to go on home. It was a harbinger of things to come in Memphis, but I remember being shocked that we were seen as a threat to or bad influence on the black boy. When we returned to my grandparents' house it was turning dark. It was actually dimly lit inside the house as well. My grandmother was sitting on a stool in her house dress in the living room and she and my grandfather pursued their routine of scaring the dickens out of us with tales of missionaries in Africa. This particular time, all our big eyes were on my grandmother as she told us about a missionary being awakened as his leg was being consumed by a python. Then she started the buildup of a story about the child of a missionary walking through the woods alone while a tiger prowled nearby. About that time, my grandfather jumped out of the darkness behind Chuck and said, "Boo!" Chuck leaped legs and all toward the lap of my grandmother, knocking her and her stool to the floor. She and my grandfather had a long wicked chuckle at our expense, as all the grandkids were horrified by the story, my grandfather's pounce, and the dreaded creatures that prey on the innocent in far off places.

In terms of the boy cousins, the further along in our teens we got, our interests seemed to get wider and wider apart. I got interested in music and more involved in my studies. Even when my cousins moved back to Memphis in my high school years, we did not see one another often. I went to college. And Chuck got married. Then Chuck and his wife had their first daughter. I have no idea where Rick was. Responsibilities, proclivities, and chance worked to separate us. But as happens with cousins who were present at inception and through much of one's life, paths circle back.

In the spring of 1970, I was starting to get weary of college and eager for a change of scenery. My draft status should have been a factor in my considerations, but it wasn't. Out of the blue, Chuck contacted me. He had separated from his wife and was sharing an apartment with a medical student and had gotten into body building. He also had developed a keen interest in music. It was a relief to have a social outlet other than my old college fraternity brothers. The counterculture, a desire to see the world, and the need to earn money pulled in opposition to college life and an undecided major of studies. School and the fraternity scene were starting to be less attractive. Come later in spring, I decided to quit school and get a job on a survey crew with Chuck, and we shared an apartment with two other guys. I bought a Triumph Tiger motorcycle and stupidly parked it in the living room of the ground-floor apartment. As summer approached, I started planning a motorcycle trip to California with a college friend. When that fell through, Chuck and I decided to drive his old blue Mustang to California, and I shipped my motorcycle to L.A.

Chuck also got me to start jogging back in 1970. I had started gaining weight prior to quitting school, spending many hours in the library trying to keep up with reading, which I had a hard time doing at home. I soon began to lose weight and to get in better shape – and in better condition for California. I was definitely more inclined to being outdoors and active.

In L.A., Chuck and I started out living on welfare and food stamps for a few weeks until we got trainee jobs at the Chrysler automotive plant. We went to the beach now and then, and Chuck bought a record per week to broaden our musical experience. At our apartment in Santa Monica, Chuck and I read a lot during that summer. We also listened to a number of new record albums. There is nothing like getting up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning to work on an assembly line installing shock absorbers to turn one's mind back to school again. I applied to the University of California at Berkeley as a psychology major and was accepted as an in-state resident. By the end of that summer, my parents wanted me to come back to Memphis instead. I think that the time was nearing when Chuck's wife and daughter were about to move to L.A. from Alaska. Anyway, I left for Memphis, shipping my bike back, and Chuck's family reunited. When I got back to Memphis, my parents handed me a letter informing me of an appointment for a physical at the local draft board. Within a week of that examination, my life had taken a surprise turn and I became acquainted with cancer and the uncertainty that brings. I sold my bike and bought a new red Volkswagen bus and moved into a Midtown garage apartment on Parkway near Overton Park.

After surgery and cobalt radiation, while staying in school and doing well, I rewarded myself with a Christmas drive with an old band-member friend to see Chuck and his family in L.A. Within less than a year of that trip, Chuck moved back to Memphis. Soon, Chuck and his family, Rick and his wife and daughter, Uncle Johnny and Aunt Mildred, and my grandmother and grandfather all occupied four separate houses in a neighborhood around the corner from my old fraternity house across the tracks from Memphis State University. I lived on the other side of the tracks in a duplex while still in school. Having lived in California, I was in a new world and hung out with old friends my age who had also spent the summer out West.

Chuck was soon teaching himself guitar and in a few years was seriously writing songs. I started to dabble in drawing and oil painting. All five of us, the comeback cousins, eventually got involved in the arts in one way or another after high school, especially relating to printing preparation, but also painting, theater, and music added into the mix. That was in fact odd since our parents were not that involved in the arts. I think Uncle Johnny played a little guitar way back, having a huge record collection after WWII. My dad was very able in building crafts and making things. But we did not grow up in a community that fostered creativity, and we showed little interest in it when we were younger.

As my interest in art increased so did my weariness with college; I had changed my focus of study one too many times in five years. I once again left school and started planning a trip to Europe, which I sold my Volkswagen bus to pay for. I gave away clothing and gave up my apartment, because I intended to stay abroad for a while. So, once again, Chuck and I went our different ways. After a year in Europe and three months in Central American, we reunited, both working in construction framing apartments then houses. We spent many a summer day together in the sun and heat wearing boots, a T-shirt and jeans. Then we would meet some nights at his apartment and share a beer and listen to music until it was time to go home, get some sleep, and start all over again. That cycle continued for about four months.

By 1970, for various reasons, mainly marriage, children or disease, we boys were all less qualified for the draft during Vietnam. And none of us was likely to voluntarily jump into somebody else's hotheaded brawl fomented by twisted notions of international adventure or dubious views about strategic accomplishment. I can't always speak for the girls, because our two worlds seldom overlapped; when the girls' lives did enter near our orbit, the boys were too busy plowing ahead to notice them. But we all, the boys and the girls, had our personal push points, past which you did not want to tread without caution. None were overtly aggressive, and in fact all were usually open and gentle. But I knew, as I refined my Chuck skills in precision teasing, that my sister, if pushed too far, would send a full quart jar of mayonnaise across the room to crack my skull. Not long after I moved to a duplex near Parkway and Union, I met Chuck, his wife, and Rick at a crowded beer bar on Highland Avenue. I don't think I saw it coming, but Chuck assumed one of his infrequent dark, silent, steamy glares at some person at a table nearby. I don't know if he knew the person or if the person had said something that Chuck didn't like. But all of a sudden, Chuck was up swing his fists and Rick leaped over the table into the fray. Tables and chairs went crashing over and glass was breaking. And we were smack dab in the middle of a barroom brawl. While admiring Rick for his rash act of brotherly vigilance and solidarity, I quickly exited the bar and took to the road. Traveling had taught me to sense when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em and there was zero thinking involved. Yet there was Rick, who had been mildly tormented by Chuck for at least two decades, jumping without a moment's hesitation into the fight alongside of his older brother.

Decades have past since then. Rick has married a couple of times and moved from Memphis to Alaska to Florida. Chuck's family grew and he too got remarried, moving to a nice big house east of East Memphis. Sharman too is back in Memphis, and her three children, like Chuck's and Rick's, have children of their own. Chuck, Rick and I, the kickin' cousins, have now become the cardiac cousins, since all three of us have had some circulatory alerts, and Chuck and I share the experience of wild hearts. Though perhaps less dedicated to them, Chuck still has his guitars and music – which is a good thing since his bad knees from years of playing volleyball have slowed him down a bit. Rick has his painting, often done with printer inks; he has stacks of them that few have ever seen, with themes that fewer still could comprehend. Sharman is an art teacher. Deb is a manager and a basketball mom.

I guess one thing I can say for certain about the cousin times is that they were repeated over and over again. There wasn't much interest in thinking about the relationships while we were in the middle of their fervor and activity. First cousins are that way: they are close enough that you can't quite shake them and faraway enough that you are never quite sure when they will reappear. As with brothers and sisters living at a safe distance, it can be as if parallel universes veer in some mysterious pattern to intersect every once in a while. That they are near and dear from day one, and forevermore, is a given. Cousins just are. They are the constant that can link one with the past; they are the easy companions who will surely leave you; they are the family touch that both burns and brightens all at once.

 

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