Rhys Beleu: Larger Than Death (February 2019)
Southern Legitimacy Vital Statistics of Rhys Beleu
Born: rural Texas
Raised: Rich White Trash
Favorite Flags: Lone Star, Stars and Bars, Battle of Gonzales cannon “Come and take it”
Principles to live by:
1. Never trust the government.
2. Cooking is a competitive sport. Never sacrifice taste for “healthy.”
3. Be polite and act right, but when Asshole don’t, cuss ‘m out and hit ‘m back.
4. Value honesty, sincerity, wisdom, courage, tolerance, as priceless possessions because so few humans own and use them.
5. I fought to retain my native dialect abroad for decades, working through education to doctoral level, holding highfalutin corporate jobs in Manhattan, experiencing linguistic discrimination, and even enduring actual verbal abuse from strangers in public who called me racist (ironic, since both my husbands were non-white). So it saddens me to see that more and more young Southerners no longer proudly speak their regional dialect, but shamefully accelerate cultural assimilation by sheepishly speaking the radio/TV dialect.
6. The herd-brains who attack confederate monuments contribute nothing to destroying world slavery happening right now; they just destroy historical artifacts of our heritage as perniciously as the travesty of political correctness attacks free expression. I condemn intolerant acts and defend my enemy’s right to speech, because that is in defense of my own right. Besides, let the bigots exit the closet and speak out, because then we can identify who they are.
7. Some writers exclaim offense at being described with a qualifier of what/who they are: i.e., “woman writer,” “black author,” “gay poet,” insisting “I’m just a writer!” I am a regionalist and descendant of the cultural and class background about which I feel love and pride. I would be honored to be called a southern writer.
Larger Than Death
Daddy died on Father’s Day 2016.
He had left devastation on multiple levels, like the decades of toxic dumping in holes on the land, filled with construction waste laid in gargantuan gravel pits whose original contents of tiny eggs had fed the family fortune, like the three self-esteem-holes of three children. I had filled my self-esteem-hole with knowledge, accomplishments, work, and career; Jenna had filled her self-esteem-hole with children and family life; and Ahnika had filled her self-esteem-hole with money. Back in the good-ole-days of good-ole-boys, we three each embodied the archetypes of cheerleader, preppy, and nerd.
The athletic, cocky, insolent cheerleader, who dominated the highschool power structure, and later turned out to be shockingly intelligent; the skinny, shy, little girl of average intelligence with kinky blonde hair and buckteeth, who sucked her thumb in fear all through elementary school and puked every morning before class because she was bullied there daily, but learned very early how to steal, then later how to project her nice-girl-con to masterfully manipulate, disarm, deceive and defraud on increasingly higher levels of banking fraud, identity theft, embezzlement, forgery, and falsification of documents; and me, the petite but strong, elfish, oddly intelligent innocent, an “extreme preemie” born at only 6 months, yet a late bloomer in every other stage of life – we three were the survivors.
Back then, long before “The Big Bang Theory,” and long before DSM5 and disorders category 299 were familiar enough for pop culture to produce the slang “on the spectrum,” nerds weren’t cool in those days, in fact we were despised, cheerleaders and jocks held the power, and preppies were somewhere in the middle. So as a nerd I was entitled to ridicule at school, and at home my role continued since I was the different one and an easy target. My family derided, “Thera, you know nothing but what’s in books,” “you know nothing about the world,” “you have no common sense,” “all that stuff in your head is worthless trivia.” “You are worthless.” I escaped into my books and music and writing and life of the mind. I bonded with those dedications for which I was ridiculed to bolster myself up above the ridicule, to defend against and rise above my attackers. Family is not fair, nice, kind, honest, tolerant, and forgiving; in fact, being nice, kind, gentle, would have been taken as a sign of weakness and an invitation for even fiercer attacks.
So when our strongest parent’s death was the catalyst that left a power vacuum and sparked fission among the survivors, I found myself right in the center of the mushroom cloud, but before that, I’d spent decades on the periphery, discounted, despised, deprived. I was an outsider on the edges of this family dynamic for most of my life. The only time I was accepted by all with open arms was when I could be used in the role of family joke, scapegoat, venting receptacle, and polarized mirroring: “I say you are inferior; therefore in contrast I am great.” Moreover, this power system assigns blame: “you try to be different on purpose just to provoke us!” I neither tried to be different nor did it on purpose. I was just born that way.
My sisters, Ahnika and Jenna had been best friends since early childhood. However, Ahnika had actually been covertly betraying Jenna steadily for years,– until circumstances required that, for maximum profit, Ahnika declare open war on Jenna, the first person to know her true nature and the last person to love her, by ruthlessly fighting both me and Jenna in the probate case over Daddy’s sadly small remaining estate worth only a piddly $200,000. Mama was invigorated from her prescription stupor by the family strife, and just for spite and delight she continued to file groundless, specious motions in the probate case involving us heirs, even though she had actually been divorced from Daddy for 30 years (yet they had continued in a celibate incest to live in their respective houses on the remaining homestead). Their divorce dated from the same year of her greatest treachery, in fact had been precipitated by it.
I’ll never forget the times over the years when both of the other two survivors were screaming at me: “you can’t take being called out; you are the problem!,” “you make us treat you this way because you are so stupid you don’t know how to act!,” “you are a mooching troublemaker!,” “you are a two-faced, lying sack of shit!,” “nobody respects you because you never hit Mom back,” and “I hate you, you ugly freak!” But at this recent turning point, the devil’s fork in the road, the second survivor had gone to the dark side, and the third one had been pushed to the outside with me. The devil’s fork is an illusion (delusion?) that differs from reality. I was nervous.
I am the first one. I was the first one to hear about our dead brother and how I took his place as the first. Cristof, another ghost, will never leave us. William Faulkner said, “the past is not dead. It is not even passed.” Cristof was killed by narcissism. Mama had a superficial cancer on her forehead that needed radiation, but it could have waited 3 months. Daddy said she was scared of dying, but I think our very vain mater formosa was really not as disturbed by dying as she was by living with how the stigma marred her great beauty. Uncharacteristically wearing baggy clothes, she concealed from the radiologist that she was pregnant, even though Cristof was already quickened. She underwent three radiation treatments, one for each of her future three children. As a result Cristof was born horribly deformed, with his heart outside of his body. Poor baby. Child sacrifice offering his heart in his hands, he was no match for our cannibal family. Mama turned away from him; she could not look Truth in the eye. Instead she repressed and projected her sin, then punished me with her lifelong hatred for me, for my having taken Cristof’s place.
And as a result of Cristof’s death, Daddy bought me. He bought and paid for me as absolutely as he, Mama, and Ahnika would later buy Money and pay for it with their souls. He filled the baby-hole by quickly buying me from the doctor who delivered me and who was also his friend and a fellow good-ole-boy. They say that Dr. Adams, who had met Daddy when he fixed Daddy’s hernia during Korea, knew the back story, that yes there was a an unwed mother (a WAC? Navy Nurse Corps?) who had intersected Daddy’s time and place; some of them even theorized in their whispered gossip that Daddy had actually given me half my DNA, and then paid Dr. Adams to keep that skeleton in the dark closet where it would stay and keep Cristof company.
I was a barely-one-pound-and-few-ounces infant still incubating with the other severely premature worms in my cocoon, until I left the warmth and softly humming florescent light of Flow Hospital to be born again into this dark legacy, my family. During the time I remained in the incubator, Mama lay in her own incubator, in a catatonic depression in bed while her brain circled the killing guilt around and around and around with no object, around and around and around circling endlessly, because she wouldn’t claim it. It had no home. But when Daddy brought me home, the circle had an out. When Mama exited her incubator months later, the spell was spun. Every time she looked at my face, I was the living reminder of the killing guilt which she could not live with, and thus which her mind had repressed, compressed, convoluted, and twisted around onto me. Each time seeing me threatened to raise the dead and Truth which she had to beat down back into repression, she had to beat me down like she beat down the unbearable guilt buried in her subconscious, every time it came close, every time I came close.
The next important dark spell of the subconscious involves my privates. Mama was a narcissistic hypochondriac, and has always craved being the center of clinical attentions, but her youthful beauty and full-of-life health were dead give-aways which soon ceased to convince. She needed an object for attracting attention by proxy. Daddy was still young, strong, and handsome back then, but his raw and natural virility did not satisfy Mama’s contempt that her beauty deserved a pretentious refinement beyond the blue canvas of our true social class, rich white trash. The handsome, soft-handed, white-coated urologist meant attention week after week, attention which could be held by Mama’s descriptions of her poor little toddler’s peeing problems. I have no conscious memories of the actual dilations. I wonder if I looked at the tiny child boots on feet which would not reach the stirrups (or did they strip my feet naked too?), then (what next?), when strangers’ hands jerked my legs apart, maybe I only saw the white lab coats. Repression is the mind’s fifth amendment. But I know from my nightmares that my urethra was dilated many times. And for many decades humans, animals, monsters, and machines chased me through my dreams with the ultimate goal of genital mutilation. What I do remember is Mama saying, “Oh it was horrible for me! While I was in the waiting room I had to sit through the sound of your hysterical screams!” She wanted white coats, white and smooth like the bitter, white-coated pill I want her not to swallow, but to choke on.
The fact that Daddy quickly loved me made Mama hate me even more. I was fully his: he had bought me wholly, with no control from her. While she was still incapacitated, Daddy and Granny (her mother, not his) held me, fed me, soothed me, changed my diapers, loved me. Being self-employed lets a man become maternal, if he feels the urge. We bonded for life. And when Mama came out of her depression full of manic hate and jealousy of our love, the oedipal battle began.
The climax of this epic battle exploded when I was 15. I never meant to lose control, but I was inexperienced and got drunk on the beer and tequila that my friends had. I was too drunk to drive so my friends had to drive me as close as the roads went to our fences and then sneak me back over the fields. The way you step through barbed wire is to stomp the bottom two wires while pulling the top two up; first one person steps through then does the same for the other person to step through. My friends struggled to pass me through the fence. I felt pressure but not pricks; if any barbs snagged me I don’t remember. I only remember staring at the full moon which I had stared at so many nights while trying to transcend pain, and the hauntingly melancholy cry of the freight train whistle from the Southern Pacific which rolled by every night at the same time. The next image in my fragmented memory, after having been deposited by my escaping friends, was Mama’s face, the terrifying face filled with hatred and rage. Her fury must have exceeded its usual beatings, because it wiped itself clean from memory with its own intensity. I remembered nothing more until waking up in the shower in my soaked clothes. What they told me later filled in the memory gaps. Mama beat me till I was prone, then continued to kick me in the stomach as I tried to crawl away while the other two jeered and laughed. Then she drug me by the hair to the shower.
Shortly after that, I left home and moved away to town. For a time I lived with my dear Granny who had tended to me along with Daddy in the beginning of my life while she had still lived on the farm, before Mama ran her off and she moved to her house in town. It was a brief time of sweetness like my early childhood had been before Mama’s manic episodes became uncontrollable. Granny’s house, built in 1924, still stands till this day. In contrast, my first two birthplaces were destroyed in the same year: Flow Hospital and Daddy, who both went bankrupt in 1986. When it happened I was 1400 miles away in the Baltimore ghetto between Reisterstown Road and Druid Hill Park, which would become my third birthplace after I emerged again by the transforming trauma of poverty. With no electricity or gas, during winter I slept in my clothes, with all my other clothes inside the bed, all the blankets over my head including a couple of horse blankets on top, and an antique .22 alongside me while embracing my dog for body heat and protection. I had left Texas to those foreign lands in naive trust on Mama’s promise of financial support for me to attend graduate school at Georgetown University. After my first semester she broke her promise over the phone, telling me, “we’ve all cut back here.” I couldn’t get education grants because my family was wealthy, and I had no work or income history to get a loan, yet I managed to struggle through to a cumulative 4.0, taking 5 years to finish a 2-year degree, while I worked as a hotel and office building maid, a factory worker on assembly lines, lumping crates of lettuce on a loading dock, and any other odd job I stumbled across. Poverty gave me an education worth infinitely more than the master’s degree summa cum laude, something I had never experienced before: how the poor are treated. Thus I experienced poverty and wealth in one lifetime, just like Daddy had, but his had occurred in the reverse order: childhood poverty, adult wealth, and then his reversal of fortune and loss of fortune. Experiencing poverty after living wealthy is hard as hell. Once experienced, this polarity intensifies the contrast like Texas sun through a magnifying glass mercilessly burning bugs.
I guess that by cutting back Mama meant that she was going to embezzle the entire 2 million of Daddy’s operating funds. Simply put, construction loans work basically like this. The general contractor needs a little bit of startup at the very beginning, before the cycle of scheduled completion deadlines and repayments, profits from completed sections, and payments to subcontractors, gets rolling. If it works like expected, completed sections can be leased as they are finished while construction on the rest continues, and ideally, before the big balloon payment at the end comes due, final sale of the completed whole will still leave a profit well exceeding the remaining loan balance. To give an idea of what he might have made had that demoness not ruined him, Daddy discharged 54 million in federal bankruptcy court, instead of making double-digit millions more than he already had from projects across Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. He lost not only money, but friends, respect, his Word – a contractor unable to pay all the workers of whom he is one loses his honor, becomes despised, “sorry,” “no count.” Mama would bankrupt his construction company, cause him to lose to creditors all his commercial properties and 500 acres of agricultural land, crops and livestock, break his heart, break his brain, and eventually drive him insane. Maybe she stole the money in revenge for the stranglings. When the manic swing of her cycle escalated until the fury could not be stopped, certainly not by herself, the mania could only be halted, like electricity, by breaking the flow. After days of her screaming abuse, breaking things, and thrashing kids, with no sleep in between, when both she and Daddy were at the limit, he would simply put his hands around her neck and squeeze. He would squeeze until the airflow stopped, the screaming stopped, so the mania would stop. Had she stolen his money in revenge for the stranglings, or in revenge for his having put me in first place? Perhaps her betrayal was born of Envy, which must destroy the thing which it envies but cannot achieve. Or maybe she was just a sadistic monster.
The way Mama fucked Daddy over must have felt like getting his urethra dilated. He begged her to give the money back, or it would break him, but she wouldn’t. That betrayal broke him and made him too into something monstrous. Why didn’t he turn her in to the law to save his company, to save himself? Love can be monstrous.
I’ll never understand why he didn’t turn her in for embezzlement so she’d be locked up like she deserved. Just like I’ll never understand why he didn’t do anything when, ten years before that, while her psychiatrist was urging him to commit her as a mortal danger to herself and her children, she held a loaded revolver to his temple, cocked it, and said in a her special, psychopath voice that makes my skin crawl: “you goddamn sonofabitch, I’m gonna kill you and all three of those fucking kids.”
By the time I came back home again after my 15-year sojourn in foreign lands, Daddy had fully transformed into the tortured, hateful, vengeful, rage-filled person he would be until his death. He wanted to kill Mama, but he had to restrain himself from murdering her in order to achieve revenge. Every time the homicidal rage inside became unbearable, he would have to kill something as her proxy. He killed his hounds. Then he got chows. Time passed; rage grew. He killed them. Then he got Australian shepherds. He killed them. Time passed; rage grew. Then he got great pyranees. He killed them. Then he got American Staffordshire terriers and killed them. Retrievers, trackers, cow-dogs, bird-dogs, coonhounds…He was holding his fury in almost unbearable check in order to watch her mania spending put her into bankruptcy the way she had done to him. He helped it along by urging her to spend. His condition at death had left him so full of bile that the bile reacted with the undertaker’s formaldehyde, giving his skin a bizarre tint. It was as if by eating the money he had turned his skin the worn, dollar-bill-grayish-green that it became in his coffin.
Now all that is left of the bigger money that Mama’s investors had made over 30 years from Daddy’s original 2 million is only a few hundred thousand. Ahnika has taken on the sole role of sucking blood from her now, which will soon result in Daddy’s revenge being fully effected: she’ll have nothing left, be broke, and broken, before she dies. Will Ahnika manage to get the remaining money before Mama dies? I don’t know. Do I care that without someone to save her she is destined to die penniless, friendless, and helpless, at best neglected and at worst abused in the public institution at Wichita Falls? Will I ignore Ahnika’s rapid and skillful syphoning so Mama can experience what she did to Daddy? Will my hatred of Mama because of what she did to Daddy prevail, will I let her get what she deserves, or will the light of human compassion which she never showed me and which she does not deserve win out over the dark? I don’t know. The cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas said that all writing is revenge. I will have already finished my revenge as of the last word on this page. Will I wait and watch Daddy’s revenge to completion? I don’t know.
Well, I didn’t wait and watch. I helped it along a little. I took all of my share inherited from Daddy’s measly estate and hired the best killer that a $50,000 retainer would buy to put away a worse killer. The retired demoness possessed a guardianship attorney’s dream, the holy trinity of incompetence hearings: Alzheimer’s dementia, mental illness, and brain damage from a longstanding valium and painkiller addiction that dated from her first dealer, the elegant urologist. My hired killer easily won the case, helped by Ahnika’s long criminal history and beautifully shining paper trail flowing to her elder abuse in the form of financial exploitation. What cash was left, plus the money from selling the homestead (by then the last holdout surrounded by the peaked suburban development which, ironically, Daddy had originally conceived, birthed, and profited from during its infancy of the 70s real estate boom) got deposited into a trust designed to pay for Mama’s remaining lifetime care in the nursing home and to pay me a modest stipend as the trustee and guardian protecting her physically and financially.
“Where’s Joe?” “Joe who?” “Joe Bell of course,” I sneer with evil enjoyment: “You killed him, dumbass. Just like you killed Cristof.” She begins shrieking like a baby pig, screaming with horror that sees the dead rise: “No, it’s a lie! How do you know that anyway? Who are you?!” As an alarmed nurse runs into the room I turn to him and say compassionately, “she gets so frightened when the hallucinations pop up.” “Yes, that’s one of the symptoms of the Alzheimer’s brain,” says the nurse, walking away when he sees that the noise is nothing to fuss about. When the nurse is completely gone I continue. “Shut up and listen to my review, you stupid bitch.” I read, “In her debut story, which the editor/critic Scroggins has called ‘Huge. Powerful. Horrifying,’ the author plants an evil seed for future dark flowerings of a style which she calls Mod.Soth.Goth.” “Where’s Ahnika?” “In prison. And you helped me put her there!” I chirp joyfully, once again disorienting her muddled brain which floats unanchored, unhinged, in a timeless, fragmented and disordered shadowy prison . She starts to wail again, and the helpless, confused distortions of her insipid, blubbering face, the outward manifestation of her floundering mind, bring me more enjoyment than the money ever did or will. “Goddamn I wish I could slap you without leaving marks, you worthless piece of shit. Shut the fuck up! You’ll make the nurse come back.” I pull my arm menacingly far back to anticipate a swing, and feign a blow close enough to make her cower and go silent. “That’s more like it, baby-killer.” “Where’s Jenna?” “She died of cancer.” That is a lie; actually Jenna survived cancer twice, but I so relish the suffering that this lie produces in my torture-toy. “As much as I enjoy these visits, which are the greatest joy of my life, I got shit to do.” In leaving, I kiss her withered, mummy cheek as southern custom requires.
The nurse says sincerely, “you are so dedicated, visiting every day.” “I wouldn’t miss a visit for the world.” This is my world. My world, long lost from the physical realm, still lives here. Granny’s face, framed by her silver curls in a 1930s style, warms with a smile as her black eyes gaze lovingly through their rhinestoned cat-eye glasses; the antique jenny lind bed in her room, where I slept with her until I was 10 when she left the farm, is a beloved icon of safety and comfort. My mother’s only accomplishment, her beauty, still lives – her thick, luxurious, insane curls straightened into a glossy-black, crowning bouffant ending in a perfectly upturned flip, her matching deep black eyes in which the iris matched the pupil like two black holes, her solid, broad nose and full lips rising from pale, flawless skin the color of bread dough, her naturally straight teeth with the little space between the top front two, her statuesque figure, the height of Daddy, that remained shapely after three children, her beautiful breasts that never fed, her soft, long-fingered, threatening hands, – until I force her face into the mirror, and, horrified at the sight, she cries. Jenna lives whole, her strong, resilient, gymnast body bouncing back in a rhythm that knows no limitation, her fearless self before she got cancer. Even Ahnaka still has her soft, naturally gold ringlets that haloed her head before she first turned bad at 6. Daddy is strong as a bull, with that perfect balance of comely fat and muscle like the finest marbled beef, regally muscular and recumbent in the field with his cows, a bull idyllically relaxed like the deceptive bulk of a lineman until he explodes into the opposite, so handsome with his black hair and green eyes, deep above-waist-tan accentuating his upper muscles against pale legs that rarely wore shorts, I see him on one of his bulldozers, backhoes, or combines, flying his Piper, charming the good-ole-boys at the bank, generous, hospitable, charismatic, walking through his construction sites like a king. The land is how I remember it from the early days when it was still rural, all thousand acres undivided with no house to be seen for miles except for those of relatives; thickets of mesquite, groves of oak, hickory, locust, elm, cottonwood, sycamore, cedar, treasures to find of wild blackberry and honeysuckle, yellow-blossomed prickly pear, bristling bullnettle, regal purple tufts of thistle, magnificent, graceful golden fields of coastal to feed the cows in winter, the jackrabbits, roadrunners, lightning bugs, copperheads, are abundantly unendangered, the chickens are making perfect eggs, white, brown, bluish, speckled, some shot with little squirts of white or green shit, the hogs are fat, proud, and vocal, the sows oof-oofing their soulful bass, while piglets squeal soprano, fighting for the favorite tit. The garden is full row after row, and the orchard blossoms white and pink foreshadowing plums, peaches, and pears, the creek has not run dry but is still full and shaded by willows under which even the cottonmouths are beautiful, thick, muddy-water-brown, and glistening wet.
And my ghost-twin, Cristof, whom I love most of all because of his innocence, is here too. We are all ever acting in the family plot, including even those who lie in the family plot. Within dementia’s endless eternity, her time has ceased tolling. Each day she learns horror anew; because dead time stops her mind from knowing, thereby her mind stops Time, every time. Vivimus in morte ad infinitum.