The brothers were contrary but compatible. Like sweet and spicy, they were the kind of contradiction you want in gumbo.
If Concert was love, Cletus was heartbreak.
Their mother was known as Hattie, or Mis Harriet Mae if you wanted a second square of cornbread. As a young woman she made the best cobbler in the county. And she still did. After the boys were born she made ends meet by trading her notorious dessert for what was needed. Friends gladly swapped a blackberry cobbler for twice its worth in rice and giblets. And with that, she made dirty rice and traded it for three times its weight in cornmeal and catfish. In turn, she charged a dollar a plate for fish fries in the front yard. And the pattern persisted until there was very little Hattie wasn’t known to be known for. Before the boys had kissed their first crush she had a profitable restaurant running out of her kitchen and five picnic tables in the front yard.
Hattie loved Cletus and Concert dearly, but they were wildly unsupervised. Not only was she busy with the restaurant, but after she started making her own liquor, any problems they could find elsewhere were milder than the brand distilled at home. So she shooed them down the street towards more innocent trouble. But they rarely left for long. The food at home was too exciting. The action too tasty.
Cletus thrived off the ruckus. He learned to fight, and barbeque. He had the same style for both—hot tempered and audacious. Both left you with a sting in the mouth. Only one left you asking for more. Other than barbecuing, Cletus’ finest attribute was also his repeat offence; no matter how bad you whooped him, he’d come back for more. His teachers called him incorrigible, the winos called him Boomerang.
Concert on the other foot, learned to dance and tell jokes. Cletus may have been the fighter, but Concert left the impression. When he spoke, you heard. He wasn’t loud, just kinda smirked his point across. Concert’s belly was round and his laugh was contagious, which came in handy for settling arguments, but was dangerous around his older brother. When Concert would cackle, Cletus would smile, which wasn’t funny at all. He was a good fighter, not undefeated. Cletus’ teeth looked like they were holding his tongue hostage.
They were brothers in arms, but used their weapons differently.
The contrast between the boys didn’t stop at their personality. Where Cletus was long-limbed with freckles, Concert was pudgy and olive skinned. Cletus had chiseled features and intense brows. Concert had dimples and a Cheshire smile.
“Cletus, what’s that you fussin’ with?”
“Kitchen? Looks like a barbeque.”
“What’s the difference?” Cletus asked, without looking up.
“What’s the difference?” Concert flustered. “Difference is we in the backyard, kitchen’s in the house.”
From grills to girls, Cletus considered anything hot and pleasurable to be a kitchen, and often confused the two. When he first coupled with a girl, he brought an oven mitt for protection.
“How bout you go’an pester your pet turtle.” Cletus pointed a wrench at his little brother. “He ain’ quite dead yet.”
“Leave Tony outta this. Besides, what’s your barbeque got to do with this old car?”
“Hinges Concert.” Cletus was dismantling the backdoor of a Buick. “She ain’ yawnin’ right.”
The lid of his barbeque leaned to the right, crippled from a cracked hinge.
Concert’s chin shot out. “You smell that?”
“Smell what?” Cletus tried, but all he smelled was the inside of the abandoned Buick.
“Mama must be cookin’ them brisket po’boys.” Concert licked from dimple to dimple. “I’m bout to put a hurtin’ on a couple’a them.”
“You better not you tubby little troll.”
“Those sandwiches is Mama’s biggest money maker.” Cletus looked up from his work to let Concert know he was serious. “People pay whole dollars, not knowin’ the wiser.”
The brisket po’boys were a simple recipe, consisting of what patrons had been served earlier in the week. Brisket leftovers and yesterday’s bread. After frying the strips of brisket and steaming the stale po’ boys, no one knew they were eating a second-hand sandwich.
Plumbers & Politicians
After the interstate and franchised restaurants cut through town, Hattie saw her sales cut in half. To compete, she did what they couldn’t–get people drunk. She figured if you can’t beat’em drown’em. And that’s what she did. Or tried to. Hattie had a friend whose father had been a bootlegger. In exchange for three bundles of hushpuppies and two cobblers, she taught Hattie how to distill corn whiskey. “Be careful Hattie. The politics are far more dangerous than the liquor,” her friend warned. Local law enforcement tolerated the illicit pastime, so long as they didn’t go thirsty. They got ten percent, the liquor tithe. Politics didn’t scare Hattie. Schmoozing was one of her many talents. What she had an issue with was actually drinking the hooch. She didn’t drink and was resigned to the fact that alcohol tasted terrible no matter what you did. So, she became aloof while brewing and batches liquor were often served untested, turning the patrons cantankerous and even ornery.
The liquor was a spark to a yard full of character waiting to be ignited.
The boys were locals, but Hattie had a different story. She and Cletus’ father settled there when their boat sunk. Cletus’ father was a marina mechanic in Louisiana, but after Hattie got pregnant he decided to start an engine repair shop on the Texas coast. The young couple piled into a flat-bottom boat and headed south towards the Gulf of Mexico. Once they arrived, it was clear they couldn’t compete with the bigger shops and decided a smaller town would mean bigger profits. With renewed purpose, they motored inland through the marshes of South Texas. After two day’s travel, they struck aground and parked the boat on the bottom of the river. Hattie was eight months pregnant and nearly died getting to shore. She gave birth to Cletus on the muddy bank. The sight of childbirth and his sinking ship was too much for Cletus’ father. Hattie soon found herself alone with the infant.
Hattie found work as a nanny for a family that was nearly as poor as she was. They paid little, but gave her a deal on their spare room where she and Cletus lived comfortably, until Concert was born. After Concert was weaned, they moved out of the room and into a home. The house was at the edge of the township where property lines were disputed by both people and livestock. When pigs from surrounding farms broke into Hattie’s compost pile, they found themselves on the next day’s menu. Killing the rogue swine became Cletus’ job, which made him feel like a man. Killing and plucking the chickens was Concert’s job, which made him cry. The house was distinguished, but not fancy. Built from a deconstructed smokehouse, the wood was unpainted and varnished a deep burgundy from its past life of curing meat. Each room smelled like a different cut. Hattie’s had the aroma of smoked fatback. The boys’ room smelled like beef jerky in the winter and hot pastrami in the summer. And no matter what time of year, the kitchen was a bouquet of sausage. The aroma was so strong, if you ate with your eyes closed, it would make dry grits taste like a ham sandwich.
Some said Hattie should’ve charged for anyone eating down wind.
The porch was the only part of the house that had a paint job. White, polka dotted with gravy and cranberry sauce. At each end sat hickory rocking chairs that were rarely set in motion. Instead, the porch served as a buffet. Six days of the week three tables ran shoulder to shoulder, lined with food from Hattie’s kitchen and barbecue from Cletus’ grill. Two dollars after they arrived, people would climb the steps, serve themselves and make a mess of the picnic tables in the front yard. At the base of the porch steps there was a leaky keg of sweet tea. The neighbor’s dog lapped at the lemon-flavored mud.
Despite living on the outskirts, Hattie’s tables were always full. Every type of personality came to devour the day’s special. Plumbers and politicians to barnstormers and businessmen. They dined together and didn’t hesitate to share a bench with those they ordinarily wouldn’t share a sidewalk with. Besides Hattie’s cooking, poverty was the only thing that crossed the race line. The whole town was poor, but common ground didn’t bring them any closer.
Racism was routine. They passed it out like bake sale brochures after church. It bounced back between the races. Black folks didn’t like being dressed in other people’s problems and whites didn’t like their crutch being taken out from under them; they might have been poor, but being white was the one thing they could prop themselves up with. Malice festered like an untreated wound. It was the sickest form of conflict – the impoverished persecuting the oppressed, the oppressed blaming the broke.
Fortunately for Cletus and Concert, Hattie didn’t hate on account of color. Anyone was eligible to receive her wrath. But regardless of how opened-minded they were at home, the front door opened up to a close-minded world.
Pig Farmer Beef
When Hattie first came ashore she had one baby and two options–pay the bills or put food on the table. After Concert was born, the decision didn’t get any easier. Once they were moved into their new home, her financial strategy became bait n’ cook. She lured pigs from local farms into her backyard using spoiled cheese and peanut butter. Her rancid bribes were so enticing the hogs burrowed under the barbed wire of their pig pins. They followed the trail of cheese to Hattie’s back door, where she could kill them legally. Hattie soon became an expert poacher and her children grew healthy from the ill-gotten gain.
The neighboring farm was owned by a German man named Uli who wore a bow tie and rubber boots. The boots were to keep his feet out of the shit. The bow tie was to let you know his shit didn’t stink. He’d grown wary of Hattie’s bait n’ cook antics and suspected her of thievery. But Hattie soon opened the restaurant and stopped baiting Uli’s livestock, even giving back the hogs that wandered into her yard. Mr. Uli was so relieved to see his pigs coming back alive, he offered Hattie a special discount on pork. Hattie accepted the deal, and they developed a profitable relationship. Uli’s gesture was sincere, but as time passed Hattie’s lean figure and naked ring finger twisted his motives. When Hattie was late on a bill, Uli looked to cash in on his goodwill.
Harlon Tate was a black farmhand who worked for Uli. During one of Hattie’s reconnaissance missions around the pig pins, Harlon caught the single mother snooping. He scared her off with a yell and a raised shovel, but when he saw she had a toddler in tote he took pity on her. The next time he caught her dropping spoiled food, instead of turning her in he turned loose a runt pig. She was grateful for the scrawny hog and the two became friends.
On his way back from trimming the tusks of two elderly sows, Harlon Tate heard a commotion in the toolshed. When he peered inside, he saw Uli struggling to get his hand up Hattie’s dress. When Hattie resisted Uli put a knife to her neck. Harlon rushed into the shed, pulled Hattie away and delivered a devastating series of hooks to Uli’s muzzle. Uli collapsed but didn’t lose consciousness. As Harlon pull him up, the perverted pig farmer picked up a horseshoe. Once on his feet, Uli smacked Harlon in the head with the iron hoof. Blood poured down his face, but Harlon was unfazed. He snatched the horseshoe from Uli’s hand and applied another series of Maine-to-Florida blows to Uli’s jaw. When the blood and dust had settled, Uli lost most of his teeth and Harlon Tate lost every bit of his freedom.
In prison, Harlon received three meals a day, while his family was left wanting. Fortunately, his heroics were not forgotten. In appreciation, Hattie sent food to his wife and four daughters every Sabbath. Mostly leftovers. But Hattie’s scraps were better than most people’s Thanksgiving spreads. Every Saturday Hattie Cletus delivered food to the Tates. Cletus was so skinny Mrs. Tate insisted he eat the food he brought. Mrs. Tate eased her guilt by feeding the white woman’s son the food he brought. Consequently, Cletus developed an unlikely relationship with the Tate family. It wasn’t often a white boy broke bread with a black family, let alone sought out their company. But Cletus blossomed on his nights away. Ordinarily he was brooding and sour. With the Tates he was blushed and practiced saying grace. They were charmed by his snaggletooth manners and even let him sit in Harlon’s seat at the head of the table. In return for the food, Mrs Tate helped Hattie at the restaurant.
Mrs. Tate was skeptical of Hattie’s generosity, but was set on making it up to her. As she wiped down the picnic tables and mixed sweet tea, Neecie kept to herself, musing on a way to even the odds. Her chance for retribution came quickly. While watching customers eat fried pork chops and candied brussel sprouts, Neecie spotted a woman stealing steak knifes. She waited for the woman to finish before politely asking her to return the cutlery. After a wholehearted denial and several slurs, the woman produced the knives and pointed them at Neecie. Mrs. Tate snatched the knifes and pretended to dance with the woman until she’d calmed down. Smirking on the porch, Hattie immediately appreciated the presence of such a cunning employee. From trusted co workers to friends Hattie and Neecie became close. On the porch, after everyone left, they’d share little conversations about nothing and gossip about customers. After closing, Cletus would follow Mrs. Tate home with the day’s leftovers. Neecie insisted she could carry the groceries herself, but Cletus was secretly sweet on the Tate daughters and Neecie secretly preferred the boy to carry the heavy load. When a spring thunderstorm kept Hattie’s tables empty, Cletus arrived at the Tate home with two crawfish pies and a whole turkey. The oldest and most rotund Tate daughter was so excited she grabbed Cletus by the shoulders and kissed him on the lips. Cletus blushed and asked for another. Despite the suggested diet of a young white male in the South, Cletus quickly developed a taste for big women and dark meat.
to be continued..