Tellin’ The Biggest Lie
L. Robert Veeder
I first met Tony when I was working as a welder at Precision walls. That was truly one of the very worst jobs I have ever had. It was a large, factory type, situation. We were building metal stud walls off-site to be used for large buildings, malls, offices, that kind of thing. We’d weld the walls together, hang sheet rock on them, stucco them and then load them up onto the long, flat, bed of some eighteen wheeler, never to be seen again.
I had taken the job because they would pay me to learn to weld. It was low paying, but cheaper than going to school, and truthfully, I thought welding would be cool. It just seemed like a cool, kind of tough, trade to know how to do. “I’m a welder…” Something about it commanded respect.
The company was old. At some point it may have really thrived, but that point seemed to have passed. It smelled like a dinosaur. Upstairs, off of the factory floor there were some offices that I never got to see. That’s where the architects worked. We used to joke that the way you made an architect was to get a halfway decent carpenter and beat his brains in with a hammer. We’d laugh over this while sitting in the break-room, while “Diesel” scarfed down a tiny can of Vienna sausages and a Pepsi during our first break. I even resented the breaks. A loud buzzer would sound and everything would stop on cue; It didn’t matter what we were in the middle of. If I was slamming screws into a stud wall I’d drop my drill on cue, and make a beeline to the break-room. We all did. They wouldn’t get an ounce of time out of any of us that they didn’t pay for. But I even hated that my life was dictated by clocks and noises and being told where and when to be, and trying to figure out ways to “stick it to ‘em!” I hated that job.
On occasion Bert, the shop foreman would come downstairs and tell us to stop working on whatever projects we had going. The company was tied up in a lawsuit over payment. We were welcome to stay on the clock, but we’d have to sweep…for the next 6, 7, or 8 hours, or until they resolved the lawsuit. It was horrible. What I learned was the Bert didn’t really care what we did. So, after a few months I got the routine down. Bert would tell us to stop working and sweep. Tony and I would go tell Bert we were going to go out back to rearrange a stack of metal studs that we had seen were fallen over. Bert would smile and say great, and we’d go hide in an old building together until it was time to clock out.
That was how I met Tony.
He was truly my closest friend. We spent days, nights, and weekends together. It didn’t matter. He was a few years older than me, maybe ten or fifteen. He had dark dark skin and kept his hair neatly cut with a part carved into it. He’d brush it constantly, “just tryin’ to get the waves”. Tony and I would ride around everywhere smoking pot, listening to Parliament Funkadelic full-blast and talking about life. We spent long afternoons over at his mama’s house, which smelled, like collards, and soup bones. She had a deep seriousness about her that reminded me of my own mother- always concerned.
When we weren’t there we’d be standing at a river or pond somewhere fishing. Tony could smell a fishing hole from a few miles away. We always carpooled to work together. A lot of times Tony would show up a few hours early, banging on the front door. “C’mon Blink (That’s what everybody used to call me in those days, Blink…Blinker…that’s a story for a different time.) Let’s go catch us some fish!” And we’d hop into his car, watching the sun come up on the highway, fishing poles trembling in the backseat with bated anticipation. Tony already had a joint rolled before we ever left the driveway. Driving under the influence was never a concern for us; unfortunately, not ever.
Other times we’d go to the local liquor houses, which to my knowledge, are only found in the black communities down south, a remnant from a time that ended up buried into the bones of the south. Liquor houses were run down, dilapidated and pathetic. Sinks hung precariously off of the walls. Counter tops were broken, and sunken in. Nobody really lived in them, though many of us slept there, on the broken down couches, chipped and scarred ugly-ass television crackling away while someone fried up our local catch. I was, and am vegetarian, no fish for me. But the fish we caught were no luxury feast. They were dinner. Food was for survival.
Sometimes, too often in fact, someone would get drunk and pissed off at my whiteness and Tony and the others would intervene. I can still hear it, their justifiable anger. “What the FUCK is THIS! What you got a white man doin’ in a black man’s liquor house for? What you doing here, son?!?” Tony would step in, “Alright, alright, alright, calm down there. He alright. He cool. He my little brother…” And after some coaxing and another drink everything would sink back down again. Or I’d play my harmonica. I could win folks over with my harp, usually. It didn’t always work though. I can still feel the sting of getting slapped for no reason other than being white by a prostitute who had smoked too much crack before I sat down next to her. I was powerless, nothing I could do or say. She was right. This wasn’t my place. This wasn’t even my world. I was just there with Tony. He was showing off and I was ever the explorer of lost and distant worlds; the sadder, the better for me.
I think that’s what we loved about each other, how much our worlds bled into each others. I finally quit Precision Walls, and Tony walked right out with me. Then we went to work for a glass company for about a year and a half together. He would come over to my house, amazed that my dogs were so friendly, and that they just stayed in the house all the time. Tony had a dog, but it lived in a pen, and nobody could go near it. Not even Tony.
At the time I was going to a local cigar bar a lot. I wanted to understand what the big deal was about smoking cigars. They had a bottle of Grand Marnier on the shelf that was fifty dollars a shot, and it was my goal to some day buy Tony and I both a shot of that so we could see what the big deal was. The cigar bar was the absolute opposite of the liquor house experience. It was affluent, white men, and the women who were drawn to them, but they treated us like kings when we came in. They called us both “Sir” and lit our cigars for us as we slunked down into big, cushy, and over-stuffed chairs. Truthfully, looking back, I think this was the draw for Tony and I both. We loved each other, but we were the same in our fascination of each other’s places.
I had hated my own world. I truly resented it. Very recently I watched an old videotape of myself in my very early thirties. I was stunned at just how southern I sounded. I think that it is living here in the north that’s given me the ability to hear it at all, but I really hated being from the south. I hated my accent. The culture that I grew up in was Lynard Skynard, Skoal rings in the back pocket of your jeans, Rebel Flag belt buckles and cowboy boots. My grandparents house smelled like chewing tobacco, and there were duck calls and shotguns in most of the rooms, and I hated it. I don’t anymore. But maybe we all need to hate where we come from a little bit; or maybe there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.
But I loved Tony’s world. It was shattered, poverty stricken, and powerless. There was so much alcoholism and drug use, but of course there would be, there was just nothing to hope for there. His like my own, was a dying culture. It was being transitioned into something else, something newer and shinier.
My favorite liquor house to go to was Eddie Lee’s. Eddie Lee was much older with beautiful brown skin, white hair and one white eye. Tony told me once that Eddie Lee’s brother and him had gotten into a fight and Eddie Lee had been stabbed in the eye, which is why it was white. Who knows if that was true or not? Half the fun of Eddie Lee’s was to drink corn liquor and see who could tell the biggest lie.
One night after too much to drink I was sitting out on the front porch with a friend who had also had too much to drink. He pointed out an old concrete block building a few houses down that had been all but devoured by kudzu, “The Vine That Ate The South”. He told me that it had been part of the “Chitlin’ Circuit”, that legendary circuit of black musicians and performers who had bravely toured the southern states. (Chitlins are a southern food made out of the lower intestines of the pigs. If you’re from the south you either eat chitlins or you don’t. There’s no in between. They’re right up there with pig’s feet for me. I can’t even be in the same room with them. In fact, I’m pretty sure somebody misspelled ‘em.”) There was nothing particularly special about the building. It was two-stories, with an exterior front porch. It was pretty big, and made entirely out of concrete block, down on Jamaica Drive, in Raleigh, North Carolina, which felt rural, even though it was right in the middle of the city. He told me he remembered James Brown staying there and Aretha Franklin; who knows if it was true or not. Honestly, at that point, it didn’t matter if it was true.
I was thoroughly impressed.
Friendships- I loved that guy, but Tony and I drifted apart. My drinking and drug use had started to escalate and I was spending more and more time alone, away from people, or worse, hiding in plain sight, surrounded by people but alone nevertheless. Things were getting bad. Honestly, things were getting pretty bad for Tony too. His mother had passed away, complications from diabetes, and he was trying to keep the house, the house he grew up in, but things weren’t looking good. The last time I saw him he had conceded to selling crack in order to try to keep things afloat for awhile, something he had always sworn he would never do.
The city finally tore down the old hotel, the liquor house too. The last time I saw Eddie Lee he was holed up in a motel, being given free room and board, by his nieces who worked for the establishment. I bought a few shots off of him nonetheless, we drank to his health. Then some older women came in, drank with us, and started teasing Eddie Lee about all of the vile things they were gonna do to his body as soon as I left the room. I finished my shot and politely left Eddie Lee to his misfortune.
The last time I talked to Tony I was in the county jail, waiting to go to prison. Tony and I talked for about ten minutes. Both of us crying. We laughed about the good times, and cried about how bad things had gotten. He told me to stay off of the card tables while I was in jail, “Blink, ain’t nothin’ good takin’ place at those card tables. You jus’ stay away from those things, okay lil’ brother?”
“Alright Ant. I promise. I never liked cards anyway.”
“Hey Ant?” I said.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. I gotta be honest, I’m scared.”
“I am too Blink. I am too.”
“Yeah little brother?”
“…I love you, man.”
“…I love you too, little brother.”
Then we hung up.
And I never heard from him again.