Willie heard the hollow footsteps of his father’s worn black work boots coming up the cracked walkway and prayed for him to be sober. His first prayer had already been answered: that his father would return safely home. With his window right above the front door, Willie could hear his father fumbling with his keys and knew his prayer for sobriety hadn’t been answered. His father had just come in at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning after leaving for work at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday. “What in the world is y’all talking about,” his father shouted to his sleeping household, the front door still open. The cold entered the living room like a bum’s rush. “Ain’t no Christmas party without this brotha,” Horace bellowed. He snatched an album from the wire stacks built on the old RCA stereo console. Willie heard the broken silence splintering with the smooth opening strains of Charles Brown’s Yuletide lament, “Please Come Home For Christmas.”
Willie’s father, Horace Williams, was on the last day of a three-day drunk. Speaking to no one in particular he proclaimed, “This sombitch sing his ass off.” Horace was still wearing his green janitor’s uniform. His last name scrawled in red cursive writing over his left shirt pocket. He was, as his wife would complain, screeching off-key in his intoxicated attempt to duet with Charles Brown. Willie’s ashen face watched from the first floor landing as his father stumbled from the couch to the turntable to replay the song again. Willie’s real name was Horace Williams, Jr., though most in his family called him Willie to avoid invoking his father’s name, whom they viewed as the family embarrassment. The eight year old, in Batman pajamas, which fit perfectly when he was six, but now appeared to be restricting the boy to within an inch of his life, watched his father like a student taking notes for a test. Willie had given himself the gargantuan duty of keeping his father from destroying the Williams family annual Christmas party, though he did not know how he would accomplish such a Herculean mission. What he knew was that his drunken father’s horribly off-key singing would lead to melancholy and angry ramblings later, and that Charles Brown was indeed a singing somebody.
Willie’s constant question to his mother, “What’s wrong with daddy?” revealed a nascent understanding of his father’s illness. What he would learn later was that his father was being consumed by a pain that alcohol and good music could only temporarily assuage. His mother’s typical reply, “You’ll understand later Willie,” provided him no solace.
Dorothy Williams came downstairs in a blue terry cloth bathrobe and her husband’s burgundy slippers. She was accompanied by her twelve-year-old daughter Gwen, whose freshly pressed hair was wrapped in a multicolored scarf. Both ignored Horace. “Hey there go my honeys,” he said. Gwen could not stand her father when drunk and did all she could to avoid even smelling him. Dorothy had decided to, in deference to the Christmas party, forego her normal ritual of arguing with her alcoholic husband. In the kitchen Willie could hear his mother and sister going workman-like to their tasks of preparing food. Between choruses of “Please Come Home For Christmas,” he could hear his mother pulling pans from the cabinet and checking on the turkey she had placed in the oven earlier that morning.
Somewhere between preparing breakfast for her children and watching Gwen snap strings beans, Willie’s mother stormed past him into the living room. She moved quickly through what Willie viewed as the demilitarized zone, the hallway between the kitchen and the living room. She stood over his father, who leaned back on the couch, the Charles Brown album jacket in front of him like a shield. “You might not like the fact that we having this party here, but if your drunken ass act a fool tonight you won’t be around to act a fool tomorrow night,” Dorothy said. She had her finger a millimeter away from Horace’s placid face. “Mama just ignore his drunk butt,” Gwen said, taking her mother by the arm. “One thing for certain and two goddamn things for sure, you will not mess up this Christmas for these children or this family.” With her “one thing for certain, two things for sure,” signature saying, Willie knew there would be no further warnings by his mother. Everything after her caution would be measured using a Richter scale and subject to criminal prosecution.
Willie knew he would have to stay close to his father to avoid any further problems. He sat next to his father who pawed him gruffly atop his closely shaven head. “What I do Willie? I’m just sitting here playing one of the greatest R&B singers of all time. Look at this.” His father showed him the yellowing liner notes to the album. “Says here that Charles Brown influenced such important singers as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, and Elvis Presley.” Horace smelled of Doublemint chewing gum, Marlboro cigarettes, and vodka.
“Daddy why you ain’t come home?” Willie asked. His father turned up the stereo. “Boy, you wouldn’t understand,” Horace said, a refrain Willie heard whenever he talked to his parents. “Mama just want this to be nice party,” Willie added, as if he were a diplomat delineating the terms of a possible peace.
“Boy let me tell you about my family…” His father leaned in to him but was interrupted by Willie’s mother. She stood in the hallway with a spatula in her hand. “Don’t tell that boy nothing, let him get upstairs and get dressed so he can eat,” said Dorothy. “I was just goin’ tell him about the time Uncle Elijah took me to see Charles Brown at the Howard Theater,” said Horace.
“He done heard that story for eight years now, he know it by heart.”
Willie’s mother was right, he knew all about that show, how a local act known as the Ebony Swingers opened the show, followed by Ruth Brown and Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters. How Charles Brown was rolled onstage atop a white grand piano wearing a bone white Tuxedo as all the women screamed, “Sing it Mr. Brown.”
“He don’t know everything about that night,” Horace said, turning to his son. “Who joined Charles Brown on organ, huh? Bill Doggett, that’s who.” Willie knew that also, knew that at the end of the show, snowflakes fell from the rafters. And a woman in a red gown appeared with a white, full-length fur and draped it over Charles Brown’s shoulder as he sang “Merry Christmas Baby.” “Know what him and Doggett played?” asked Horace. “I don’t care. I don’t plan to listen to Charles Brown all day,” Dorothy said as Willie hurried by her. He hoped to use this moment of détente to run upstairs and get dressed. “Boy, you ain’t a heathen, walk up them steps,” Dorothy commanded.
While dressing, Willie thought about how much the party meant to his mother, who had been preparing a year to host it. Each year at the family Christmas function, the Williams family selected the host and site of the next year’s party. The previous year, the party was held at Willie’s Aunt Penny’s house in Oxon Hill, a suburb outside of Washington, DC. Like all of their family parties, it was big fun, packed with oddball relatives just cutting up. Horace’s brother Al complained because Penny, a born-again Pentecostal, wouldn’t allow any liquor in her house.
“Y’all know that devil’s oil is against my religion,” said Penny. Al, and the other men and women who imbibed, left a worn carpet track from Penny’s living room to the side of the garage where a furtive brown paper bag bar had been set up.
“Well you better be lucky Horace ain’t here, alcohol is his religion,” Al said as the crowded room erupted in laughter. Willie watched the embarrassed face of his mother and sister and joined in their pain. When the end of the party arrived, his mother shocked the family by requesting that they host the next Christmas party at their house. The room had quieted so suddenly that Willie could swear he heard light snow falling outside. His father’s general dislike for his relatives, coupled with his addiction had made him, as Richard Pryor called it, “null and void” to the rest of the Williams’ family.
Horace, Sr. was not at Penny’s party that year, nor could Willie remember him ever attending a family Christmas party. He had heard from an older cousin through an unconfirmed family rumor about his father’s attendance in the late ’50s. After a few minutes of muttering and nervous shifting and coughing Al said, “Look’ere Dorothy, it ain’t against you or the kids, but Horace has, well … problems.” Angry and hurt, Willie watched his mother’s face as she struggled between cussing and crying. Willie knew that his uncle Al was, for a rare moment in history, right. It was quiet for another few bars of the Temptation’s “Silent Night.” Willie’s mother seemed poised to surrender to the wishes of the concerned adults.
“Let the child have the damn Christmas party at her house,” blared Elijah, his voice a cosmopolitan lisp anchored by a Southern Maryland twang. “Ah mean please, what y’all think Horace goin’ do, shoot Santa Claus?” Elijah did not wait for the room to join in his snarls of uncontrolled laughter. “I would love to celebrate with Dorothy and family,” he said, tossing his gray head back in laughter and winking at Willie. At that moment Willie loved his Uncle Elijah more than he hated his father’s drinking.
“Everything’s funny to you ain’t it Uncle Elijah?” said Penny. Elijah, Willie’s great uncle, was the last surviving elder of the Williams family. “Uncle Elijah are you a hundred?” Willie would playfully ask. Elijah’s vintage retort, “Look at me child, I’m a fine piece of leather well put together and can handle myself in any kind of weather.” In truth, Elijah, though he did not look it, was in his midseventies. “Uncle Elijah, at your age you need Jesus and several saints and not that young man you call your partner,” said Penny. A nanosecond after her comment, the adults cattle-herded Willie and the rest of the children out of the basement. The argument continued until Elijah burst out of the room cursing about “small minds.” Two weeks later, to appease a still pissed off Elijah, Penny and Al reluctantly agreed to have the Christmas party at Horace’s house. Willie’s cousins told him it was pressure from Uncle Elijah who threatened Penny and Al with exaggerated references to his exorbitant estate and a will that changed beneficiaries as often as Elijah changed clothes, which had made the difference in them hosting the party. However, Dorothy repeatedly asserted that being allowed to have the party was a miracle. Willie’s job was to help the miracle along.
When Willie came back downstairs his father was dozing on the couch. He took his father’s work boots off and placed the tumbler of vodka that his father had retrieved from his lunch box, on the end table. Despite the urge, he knew better than to dump the liquor out. In the kitchen, Gwen was baking cookies and Willie’s mother was stirring icing for a cake. “Let you have the spoon, after you take the trash out,” said Dorothy. Willie grabbed his ragged Colts jacket with the faded horseshoe emblem and seized both bags of trash with one hand.
Instead of opening the dumpster’s side door, Willie heaved both bags over the top of the container. “Good shot, but can you do that with one of these?” said Ray, spinning the orange Wilson basketball on his finger. “Whatup Ray,” said Willie, “How many shots you make so far?” Each day, twice a day, in rain, snow, sleet, hail, Ray Fleming, Willie’s older, next-door neighbor, made one hundred baskets before coming inside. Even if he had to shoot four hundred, he faithfully made one hundred, twice a day. “I’ve made fifty-four, so far, but I’m messing around, I’m trying to make thirty with my left hand.” Willie’s calculations told him that his rapidly cooling feet, and his need to resume his position as dysfunctional family goalie, would not allow him to watch Ray reach a hundred made shots. “I would rebound for you, but we getting ready for a big Christmas party tonight.” Willie realized the excitement that accompanied his announcement. He was looking forward to his relatives all gathered in his house for a change. “Yeah, I heard your drunk ass father playing that old music,” said Ray, hitting two jump shots from the right side, before moving about fifteen feet toward the left side and hitting another. “Why he got to be a drunk?” Willie angrily asked. Ray’s form was perfect, his rise on his jump shot was effortless, and his release and rotation were poetry. “Look shorty, I know you only eight, but you know that your dad’s a drunk,” said Ray, canning a twenty-five footer from straight-on and chasing the rebound into the parking lot. Willie waited for him to return so he could deliver his acerbic retort, “least I got a father, where’s yours?” Ray dribbled the ball with his right hand, stopped from fifteen feet and shot a left-handed set shot that would have sweetly tickled the nets, had there been any nets. “Kid you know my father’s dead. He died of the same thing your father goin’ die of.” The knot that charged Willie’s throat nearly choked him, he could feel the angry tears surging toward his eyes. “Just cause your father died, don’t mean mine’s goin’ die, punk.” Willie chased Ray swinging wildly. Ray laughed, dodging him while still smoothly dribbling the ball. Willie chased and swung until he was out of breath. When he stopped, Ray dribbled around him for a layup, his lanky arms and bony fingers almost allowing him to dunk despite his 5’7 frame. Willie sat on the cement bench, catching his breath. Ray dribbled over to him. “Sorry shorty, I’m just telling you the truth. Fathers leave or die in this neighborhood. Your dad one of the last fathers left, how long you think he can last drinking like he do? Your mother will kick him out, he’ll leave, or he’ll die.” Willie stared silently at Ray, wondering if he looked like his deceased father. Willie was the spitting image of his father. When people said this to Horace, he simply said, “Who else?” It was hard for Willie to tell if he was any source of pride for his father. He wanted to believe that his father’s drunken R&B tales were a sign of love. Whenever he was drunk Horace would drag him into the living room, plop him down in front of the hi-fi stereo and proceed to attach prevaricated anecdotes to each song and entertainer played. “Charles Brown invented got-damn rhythm and blues in Memphis on a Thursday in 1949,” he remembered his father saying, amazing him with his memory and storytelling ability.
“Ray, how you feel when your father died?” asked Willie, retrieving a rare miss that rolled to the bench. Ray made ten straight baskets from the corner before answering Willie. “I ain’t really care. He was just a drunk pain in the ass. I think I was glad he died.” Ray dribbled quickly down the lane and spun his body to complete a 360-degree layup. Ray shot the ball at an impossible arc from behind the basket. The ball cleared the telephone wire, the backboard and descended silently through the chipped red hoop. “A hundred,” he proclaimed, turning his back on Willie and catching the ball on one bounce. “Save me some cake shorty,” said Ray, dribbling toward his house, the pounding basketball echoing in Willie’s ear along with the prediction of this father’s doom.
“You been out there long enough to eat the doggoned trash,” said Gwen, rolling her eyes at Willie. “Wash your hands and come back and get the spoon,” said Dorothy checking the turkey again. “That’s alright,” said Willie, returning to his post of guarding his snoring father. Willie studied his father’s face, the three-day growth of whiskers that his father would remove using the foul-smelling Blue Magic shaving powder. He studied his full mustache, the nose that Willie’s nose was growing to be. He imagined, for a moment, his father in a coffin but pushed the image from his brain. Ray was right, his father was a drunk, but he could never be happy about his death.
Alcohol had a Jekyll and Hyde effect on Horace. When sober he was nearly mute, but one sip of Smirnoff and he became an inebriated disc jockey. “Put that on again,” Horace commanded in half sleep, startling the staring Willie. He lifted the needle, a nickel taped to its back, and pulled it back to the second groove so his father could hear Charles Brown sing “Please Come Home For Christmas” for the umpteenth time. Horace was drunk, but not falling-down drunk, or as Dorothy referred to it, “emulsified.” At eight, Willie had not understood all the subtle levels of his father’s drunkenness. He only knew that when he began to croon, “Merry Christmas Baby” to his mother and sister, he would be near that moment when he would go into a drunken sleep. He was waiting for that moment.
Willie was completing chores between watching over his father. Once he had to direct his father away from the kitchen, back to the couch. In Willie’s mind, his mother’s expended patience and arsenal of Woolworth’s cutlery became the ingredients to fulfill the blacktop prophecy of Ray Fleming. The house was beginning to take shape. The smells emanating from the kitchen drew neighbors to the open back door. “Girl you burning over here,” remarked Mrs. Jones and Miss Johnson, complimenting Dorothy on the aromas causing stomachs to growl up and down the block.
In Willie’s neighborhood, friends rarely entered each other’s front doors. The front door was reserved for official business, almost none of it good. So instead of Willie answering the knock at the front door, he called for his mother. Dorothy, drying her wet hands on her apron, looked out the curtain before answering the door. “Lord have mercy,” she exclaimed, unbolting the door quickly, “Uncle Elijah!”
“Avon calling honey,” joked Elijah as he bolted into the house, kissing Dorothy on both cheeks. Gwen ran into the living room, nearly knocking Willie down, “Uncle Elijah,” she wailed, hugging him tightly. Willie joined her in the embrace. “Lord with this kind of reception one wonders why I don’t come here more often,” said Elijah. Horace moaned and turned over on the couch. “Oh yes, I remember,” he laughed. “Horace dear, do you plan to greet your last surviving elder at all,” Elijah asked. “Da hell with you,” grumbled Horace, “And turn Charles Brown up some more.” Dorothy rolled her eyes, “Just came in from a binge, but I swear ’fore God, he better not…” Elijah interrupted Dorothy, “Tsk, tsk dear, wisdom and enlightenment are here, and nothing shall wreck the buoyancy of this holiday celebration.”
“What are you doing here so early Uncle Elijah?” asked Dorothy.
“Now you didn’t think I’d let my favorite niece-in-law do all the work by herself. Robert is parking the car, I’ve got a load of culinary treats for our soiree tonight.” A tap at the door followed Elijah’s statement and Willie answered it. Robert, nearly forty years younger than Elijah, entered with a box of food. “Willie give your uncle Robert a hand, sweetie,” commanded Elijah. Willie knew that Robert was not his uncle, that he was in fact the young man that Aunt Penny warned Elijah that he’d have to get rid of in order to get into Heaven. But Robert had been with Elijah for as long as any of the children could remember, and Willie could not think of him as anything but family. “Willie if you get any stronger we are going to have to put you in the circus,” Robert joked. Gwen and Dorothy hugged Robert and wished him happy holidays. “Dorothy, Robert and I will task ourselves with turning this living room into a suite at the Waldorf Astoria,” said Elijah. Willie loved the comedic erudition of his loquacious uncle, just as he loved the stories his father told. “Dorothy and Gwen, back into the kitchen, us men will have this living room looking regal for our relatives.” Elijah sent Willie scurrying for cleaning utensils and compounds. After rearranging the room, creating more space, and garnishing the walls with decorations, Elijah and Robert stood back to survey. “The last thing we need to do in here is to move the furniture,” said Robert. Elijah laughed at the hint. “We usually have the tree over there,” said Willie, realizing for the first time that just five days before Christmas and they did not have a tree or a present in the house. He knew his father had lost what little money he earned at the poker game that kept him away from the family for three days. “And you shall this year,” said Elijah, “Underneath which shall be filled with all manner of gifts from your family. Robert will go get our tree later, let’s you and I move this couch a bit.”
Horace had fallen back to sleep on the sofa, the Charles Brown album still playing, but at a much lower volume. “Willie be a dear and go upstairs and make sure your father’s bed is turned down, he’s going to need to get comfortable to help him sleep off his tiredness,” said Elijah. Willie knew tiredness was a euphemism for being drunk, he was also aware that in the natural progression of his father’s drunken state, he would not be ready to go upstairs for a couple more hours. “His bed is fine,” said Willie. “Well check anyway,” said a stern Elijah.
Willie was barely up the steps before he heard the first raised voices. “I wish he wasn’t my father,” he heard Gwen shriek. She ran up the steps, into her bedroom and slammed her door. Willie eased back down the steps. He sat quietly on the landing and listened, though he could not see the men from his viewpoint. “Elijah, I don’t want all them fucking people in my house,” said Horace. “This ain’t your house alone goddamnit,” said Dorothy. “These children have a right to be happy and not pitied and laughed at by their family because of you,” she screamed before heading upstairs to console Gwen. Willie’s mother barely noticed him on the steps. Willie had to listen closely to hear the even tones of his great uncle. “Horace, I know you’re hurting, but sometimes you’ve got to give up your selfish right to wallow in your misery for your family’s benefit.”
“That’s high and mighty talk Uncle Elijah, from a man that was too selfish to come home and attend my mother’s funeral. You couldn’t leave them Paris fags to come home and say goodbye to your only sister,” said Horace. Robert stopped cleaning for a moment and looked at Elijah, who responded with a shrug. “Horace, I know you’re angry with me, and you can join the long lines of family members in that queue, but this party ain’t for me. It’s for your wife and children. Let them have these few hours and you can go back to being mad at me and the world ’til the cows come home,” said Elijah.
“I love my family,” said Horace. Willie knew his father gravelly-voiced confession meant he was crying and that his nose was running too. “I don’t want Penny and Al over here judging me cause I ain’t done better for my children.”
“I know you love them,” said Elijah, “But you’ve got to love them now more than your need to protect yourself.” Willie could hear his father blowing his nose.
“Elijah, remember when you took me to the Howard Theater to see Charles Brown,” asked Horace.
“Course I do, Horace, it was 1955 and tickets were a whopping $5.50 each. Now what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
“That was a big moment for me man. Lotta cats wanted to make that show and it was sold out. But you got me tickets, picked me up in a shiny black Continental. I was big man on campus for the rest of my senior year ’cause of you.”
“The Continental was rented, the tickets were courtesy of an amorously misguided backup singer named Lula Mae, and all I knew was that you wanted to go to that concert so bad you worried your mama ’til she called me in New York,” Horace, Robert and Elijah laughed together. Willie joined them quietly, until he heard his father stop laughing.
“You should have been at Mama’s funeral Elijah.”
“Horace, you’re right, but I made my peace with your mama. It took me a long time to stop running away from myself and the people that I loved. But fifteen years ago, at your mama’s gravesite, I forgave myself and I believe your mama forgave me.” Elijah’s voice was calm and steady. “I was an exile from my family, my blood, my own fear.”
“You don’t know how much I needed you Elijah. You were more like a father than uncle. You were my friend.”
“Horace, I’m still your friend,” Willie heard Elijah say. Then he heard the rustling of fabric and knew that Elijah was hugging his father. Willie put his face into his own knees and cried with the men in the living room who did not know he was there. “I was drunk the day mama passed but I still hear her last breath telling me to be a man,” said Horace. “She can’t be happy with me. Look how I turned out Elijah. Everything I do fails. Sometimes I just want to lay down and die too.”
“No, no, no,” Willie yelled. He jumped down the eight steps into the living room. “Don’t die daddy, don’t die,” he said, rushing into his father’s chest. Willie wrapped his arms around his father’s neck and held on tightly. “Don’t die, don’t die,” he repeated the desperate chant. His father was stunned by his behavior. “Boy let me go, it’s alright,” he said. But Willie would not let go, would not surrender his father to the death predicted by the sharp shooting Ray Fleming. Willie dug his face into his father’s neck until he could smell the faded Blue Magic, his cheap aftershave, the tobacco drenched sweat, the alcohol seeping from his pores. Willie held on until he could feel stubble and his own breath on his father’s face. Horace tried to pry his son away, until Elijah intervened. “Let him hold you Horace—he needs you the way you needed me.” Willie felt his father hold him back, first gently, then a full embrace. He felt his father’s tears on his face, felt his sobs. He felt his father’s rough hands on his scalp, “I love you boy,” Horace whispered. Willie felt Robert and Elijah’s consoling hands on his back. He closed his eyes but would not lessen his grip on his father’s neck. Between the soulful notes of Charles Brown’s piano, he could hear the arriving voices of his family and the distant bounce of Ray Fleming’s basketball.
Cover Art by Samantha Park
This story was chosen by Rion Amilcar Scott as winner of the 2020 Blood Orange Review Fiction Contest. In choosing it, the judge wrote the following:
This story channels generations of familial pain. A son watches his alcoholic and emotionally stunted R&B-loving father unravel. The piece comes to an emotional and beautiful ending as the father has a reckoning with himself and the family that he’s distanced himself from.