There is a story that says a black man once came to Edward White’s door, telling him he had no money, hadn’t eaten in days, was on his way to Carolina. Edward took the man into his house, made him a big meal, let him shower and spend the night in the guest room, and made him breakfast the next morning before sending him on his way with a few dollars. It’s a story my grandmother told me. I don’t know if it’s a lie, or maybe she told it to me in a dream, but that’s what the story says.
This is the worst way I can say it: He was an alcoholic, a racist, and he knew he was right about everything. You could argue with him, but there was little way you could penetrate his fortress of knowledge derived primarily from watching Donahue (which he pronounced Donahoo), one of the first daytime talk shows. One afternoon, he urgently phoned his sister, my grandmother.
“Lorene, turn on channel three right now.”
“Edward, I don’t give a dern about what that old Donahue is talkin’ about.”
“Lorene, you got to see what’s happenin’!”
“Edward, I don’t care about what’s happenin’ on that show.”
‘It’s awful, Lorene, I can’t believe it—it’s terrible what these crazy damn people do these days. This mess is disgustin.”
“Well Edward, then why do you watch it?”
“Well good God, Lorene—I’ve got to know what’s goin’ on in this world don’t I?”
One Christmas Eve, everyone got together at Aunt Diane’s house. Edward was so drunk he couldn’t hit himself in the ass with a pair of deer antlers, but he was still fluently trash-talking.
My father, Will Ed, and Uncle Roy took turns arguing with Edward. At some point in their “conversation,” Edward took the lead and my dad challenged him for it, and so they took over while Roy and Will Ed drank and looked around. Roy was a master of silence, and Will Ed always seemed calmly amused at the world. At one point, while Edward was in the bathroom, my dad was half-furious, about to either give up and go home or take Edward’s head off. He reached into the refrigerator.
Will Ed grinned. “Sonny Paul, do you need a break?”
“Hell yes, Will Ed. I’m-a kick his ass if I don’t and here it is goddamn Christmas Eve.”
“Arright, I’ll tend to him for awhile, and you go on in the living room. Roy, let’s go listen to my brother holler for a bit.”
But it wasn’t long before my dad heard Edward say something he didn’t like, jumped up, and was toe to toe with his uncle again. Most of the distant grown ups ignored them; a few would laugh and shake their heads.
This went on all night, Dad and Edward the main players, and Roy and Will Ed taking turns as moderators. After one of his shifts was over, Will Ed came into the living room, said “It’s your turn, Roy” and everybody howled. Roy swallowed a smile, and decided to express himself for the first time all evening in a quiet, single syllable.
“Damn.” He went to serve his family, while Will Ed updated us.
“I can’t deal with them two. Edward is wound up tonight, and Sonny Paul is right there with him—politics, the economy, the dern Redskins, Edward’s complainin’ about the blacks…he’s about to get going on about the damn War.”
I think Edward and my dad needed a third person there to keep them from getting too deep into each other. If it was just them, one on one for too long, I don’t know what might have happened, but by the end of the night, they had memorably butchered an a cappella version of “Silent Night,” my dad had been crying, and my mom was behind the wheel of the truck, driving us home.
Edward didn’t have much social grace. It was Thanksgiving Day on Harrell Avenue in Norfolk when my dad was a kid, and Edward was stuffing the turkey. Little Sonny Paul walked up to the edge of the kitchen table, which he was just a touch taller than, and pointed at the part of the turkey that Edward was running his hand in and out of.
“Uncle Edward, what’s that?”
He stopped, stunned that anyone would need to ask such a question—everybody knew what that part was. Temporarily dumbfounded, he stared at the innocent child.
“That’s his asshole, boy.”
Edward loved my father. When he was a kid, it was Edward who taught him about fishing, cars, baseball, golf, the woods. Edward would drop by the house on Harrell Avenue in Norfolk out of the blue and say, “Come on boy, I’m takin’ you fishin’.”
One summer decades later, at three in the morning, around a bonfire on his property and a treasure chest of beers, my dad stressed, “I ‘went’ fishing with Daddy, but it was Edward who took me fishing. Hell, Edward really raised me more than Daddy did.”
But he also used to make my dad hate him worse than anything in the world. He’d push people. He would stay on them that they weren’t doing this right, they weren’t doing that good enough. My dad remembers being on the field during a ballgame with the stands full of parents and kids, and Edward was drunk and hollering at him to get the goddamn lead out. Another time, he drove my dad and a couple of teammates to practice, so drunk he was bumping up onto the curb, and my dad was so embarrassed that he was his uncle.
But Edward loved my father.
I was nine and we had gone over to Gramma’s house to eat, and he was there. I was sitting in the recliner playing a handheld electronic football game I’d gotten for Christmas when he passed by.
“Whatcha got there, son?”
“Football game I got for Christmas.”
“Yep. Me and Dad used to play together, but he ain’t played for awhile. He’s always asleep.”
“Oh, well…now son, don’t you be too hard on your daddy. He works mighty hard for you and your momma and he gets tired and deserves a little break, a little rest now and then.” And then he walked off.
I was mad. Here was Edward, who I already knew was the asshole of the family, who could as far as I knew barely get along with anybody. And here he was defending my father, who I had felt ignored by lately. I just didn’t put much stock in him.
He made me feel like I was complaining, like I was a whiner, something I’d always been praised for not being, not like most other kids begging and crying when they didn’t get their every way. I was an only child, who did generally get his way, but my way wasn’t outrageous. According to the adult world, I wasn’t like most kids; I was a good boy. I had more respect and dignity and sense, but maybe most of that was just shyness. Years later my dad would crack jokes in front of friends while we were all playing horseshoes and getting drunk, “He wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful.” Most of the time, I didn’t really care if I was alone or with others, but when I did want to be with someone else—to praise me, talk or listen to me, or someone to compete with—well, they should be there, and my dad, at this time, wasn’t. Whether he was genuinely worn out from work or just lazy or partying all the time doesn’t really matter. What matters is Edward recognized I was hurt and, except for being a kid, had little reason to be, and that maybe there was a good reason my dad couldn’t play with me much at the time. What matters is I don’t think my being a kid went but so far with him.
One rainy night, a Chesapeake police officer had been out to dinner with his wife and happened upon Edward’s car stuck in a ditch not far from the Great Dismal Swamp. Edward was out of the car, drunk, trying to wedge wood or rocks or anything he could find underneath the rear tires for traction. As the cop approached Edward from the roadside, never identifying himself as an officer, he asked Edward what he was doing.
“Well goddamn, man, what in the hell does it look like I’m doin? I’m tryin to get my goddamn car out of this son of a bitchin ditch!”
The cop told him to move away from the car, then started down the slope. Somewhere among these gestures, he pulled his gun. Edward was drunk, didn’t know the guy was a cop, and interpreted the act as one of aggression, as a threat.
My dad imitates Edward’s explanation here as something along the lines of “So I’m stuck here in the fuckin swamp and here’s the bastard givin me orders, tellin me to move away from my own damn car, comin at me down into the ditch, pulls a damn gun on me…”
They wrestled. Edward got the gun away, tossed it up to the road, and threw the cop down into the heart of the muddy ditch.
He saw the car up on the side of the road with its headlights still on and a figure in the passenger seat. He worked his way up the muck-slope, picked up the gun from the road, then recognized the shape in the car as that of a woman. He tapped on the window, which she cautiously rolled down, and handed her the gun.
“Ma’am, I think it’s better for you to hold onto this. He might hurt himself with it.”
When I got older, my dad, Edward and I went to a Tidewater Tides baseball game—they were the big minor league team in town, the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. We went in my dad’s truck, which later became my truck, a 1984 silver Mazda SE5 B-2000. I sat in the middle, straddling the gear shift, shifting for my dad, getting “practice” for when I’d start driving. It was just after my parents separated, so I was twelve.
On I-64, on the way to Met Park in Norfolk, Edward put his left arm behind me on the back of the front seat and said, “Now son, your momma and daddy are goin through some tough times right now and I know it’s hard on you too. But things’ll work out somehow. I dunno. We’re all still here, boy.”
I started crying, Dad looked straight ahead, steadying the truck in its lane, and Edward stilled his arm behind my shoulders.
According to my grandmother, Edward’s little sister, they used to get in the worst arguments. Edward had a friend named Matt who lived down the street and to whom Edward would lend money on occasion (he rarely saw repayment, and rarely asked about it). They were all three shucking corn at Edward’s place one day when he and my grandmother got into a horrible argument over God-knows-what, and he just verbally tore her to shreds. She stormed off, kicking up gravel and clouds of gray dust as her car swerved out of the driveway.
Matt said nothing, but Edward fumbled, “She’s a good old gal—I don’t know why I’m so bad to her sometimes. I don’t mean to get so mad, she’s my little sister and I love her much as anything, do anything in the world for her. I don’t know why I…”
Edward had a few special words. “Folareepus” or “rickashallups” was used when he couldn’t think of or didn’t know the name of a part of machinery or gadget. For instance, if he and my dad were working on a car together: “Uh, Sonny Paul, this damn, um, ah, what in the hell, this damn rikkashallups ain’t workin right; hand me that there damn, uh, the goddamn, you know, well just gimme that folareepus over there.”
The next two were probably racist in origin. “Spadjo” was a suped-up and sassier equivalent of “hotshot” or “boy”—”Well you think you got it all figgered out there now, but I tell you one thing spadjo…” The other one was “rodriguez” which he used if he didn’t want to say “pecker” or “ass” in front of women or children, or occasionally shouted at bad drivers, as in, “Up your rodriguez!”
He cut grass at Stumpy Lake Golf Course during the eighties, and during one Fourth of July picnic, a twelve-year-old boy was lying down in a chaise lounge chair, and had a light blanket pulled up over him. He had a bag of pistachio nuts underneath the blanket and was eating them, and every now and then he would pass a handful back to Edward, who was standing behind the chair. After several handfuls, and right when there was that great lull in the general conversation, Edward thought the nuts tasted a little off.
He leaned over the top of the chair, leering at the boy under the blanket.
“Boy?…you playin with your rodriguez?”
I was sixteen and there was a family reunion at Uncle Jimmy’s. There was a little park right behind their house, so that just beyond their back fence—an area where they’d play horseshoes—there was a baseball diamond.
My Uncle Jeff used to play baseball in college, so he started hitting to a few of us kids. He started with high, heavy ones right to us, then moving on to gappers that would split us, short line drives we had to sprint in for, or just plain shots-over-our-heads that we could never possibly catch.
I liked to show off: run hard, throw hard, and even if Uncle Jeff messed up and hit a grounder, I’d still charge it and fire it right back at him, so I had worn myself down by the time Edward swaggered over to the edge of the dirt with a cigarette and beer, and commenced to preach to no one on that field but me about I’m slow, I ain’t got no arm, come on boy, what’s the matter with you. He might give a little “Bah!” or “Mm!” if one of the other kids didn’t make a play, but when it came to me, he cut loose and opened up. His words burned.
Jeff was enjoying hitting by now and it seemed like every play was a tough one. I got one to my right that I had to run forever for, dive, and still miss, and another one straight over my head that I had to back-chase—both tough plays that I got a good jump on, but just wasn’t fast enough, both missed, and both times caught an earful from Edward. I finally hollered, “You wanna see me make a damn play, Edward? You wanna see me make a play for you? Huh?”
“I only been waitin out here all goddamned afternoon, son!” He knew I was embarrassed and frustrated and probably knew I hated his guts at that moment, and just like he did to Sonny Paul, he kept pushing, he kept talking.
One of the next flies Jeff hit to me was far over my head again and I took off on a long run which ended with, truth be told, a spectacular diving catch.
Somebody hollered, “Arright, nice play!”
“Go ‘head, boy!”
“Well it’s about goddamned time he made one of them plays!”
I got up, thought, “Yeah motherfucker, it’s about time,” hurled the ball as hard as I could straight at him, and immediately felt scared.
It got to him after a bounce, was a little off line, but close enough to make him take a few quick hops in the other direction and spill some of his High Life. Although Edward wasn’t standing far from Uncle Jeff, and I tried to play it off as an errant throw, I was embarrassed to see the ball streaking towards him, and relieved to see it bounce. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about it later.
It seemed to me the preacher was struggling for proper things to say about Edward, which wasn’t really surprising given his reputation, but I’d begun to grow a tiny soft spot for him, one that I couldn’t explain or defend, and tried very hard to resist. After all, he was Edward the racist, Edward the drunkard, Edward the instigator, Edward who was always right. I knew that he was hard for even my dad to get along with sometimes, and I wanted to be like my dad and not back down to him, but fight.
In 1983 he saw me with a magazine that had Michael Jackson on the cover.
“You like him?”
“Mm. Negger music.”
“Well, it’s ok.”
In the later 1980s, he sneered at the popularity and power of Mike Tyson. At the time I admired Tyson, so I argued with Edward during a backyard cookout at my grandmother’s house.
At some point, frustrated, I excused myself to go inside. As I crossed the lawn, I heard someone say, “Lord, Edward must’ve really said something for Andy to pipe up like that.”
In 1991, he got cancer, just like his brother Will Ed. My dad and I fished with him one day at Northwest River Park Lake, when a black man and his son came up and my dad and I talked with them for a few minutes.
After they left, I said to my dad, “I’m surprised Edward hasn’t said anything yet.” I wanted us to agree on opposition; I wanted him to admire my cynicism.
He looked over at his uncle, sitting a short ways off, looking into the water, entirely bald beneath the ball cap that read “Stroh’s.”
“I think Edward’s getting kinda quiet. Mellowin’ out in his old age.”
“Think it’s because he’s sick?”
My dad once said, “There’ll never be another like him,” and I quickly silenced the first word that came to mind—“Good.”
At his funeral in Norfolk, he got a twenty-one gun salute because he’d been in the Marines in World War II. A short line of men marched out into an open part of the cemetery, rigid and sure in their movements. Even though I knew they would, I was startled when they fired. A man played “Taps,” and all of us were spellbound, even in the aftermath. Not a word.