Ben's Eyes

A story about growing up gay and black in the American South

by Louie Crew

First appeared in James White Review 5.3 (1988): 11-12; then was collected in Gay Nineties: Contemporary Gay Fiction Edited by Phil Willkie & Greg Baysans. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1991. Pages 101-107.

© 1988 by James White Review; © 2004 by Louie Crew

I loved Grandmama's. I loved the tin roof, the smell of the wood stove, the taste of the metal dipper, the tiny roof above the well, the tomatoes we picked and ate off the vine, the rope swing that hung on the tall hickory, but most of all Ben's eyes.

Long before six others and I integrated the high school in Stewartville, Georgia, or before I became the drum-major and broke the heart of the white football captain, back before I was a teen-ager, when we lived on an Air Force Base in Texas, I used to spend two months of every summer at Grandmama's house back in Clinton County, in south Georgia.

My older sister Hattie, 13, teased me before everyone as her `country kid-brother.' She went to Georgia with me the first time, but didn't like the single room house, the bed she had to share with Grandmama, the goats in the yard, the weeding and the hoeing, collard greens every day of the week, no radio, and the six mile walk, one-way, to the movies. She stood it for about three weeks and then cried until Grandmama let her return early to "Texas civilization and the twentieth century," as Hattie boasted to her girl friends at our large playground on the air base.

Ben was my older cousin, sixteen or seventeen, and he had gorgeous round, bedroom eyes, with long lashes like the kind women pay to have made up false. Ben's face was a richer black than mine, with not even a hint of tan. He had generous cheeks and a lean chin. His strong red lips could not conceal the slight smile he kept as I stared at him for minutes at a time, not just when we rested in the shade to guzzle water from the mason jar, but even while I rode with him on the rented single-seater, plowing Grandmama's field. I probably wasn't much help, but he made me feel that I was.

We watched for any rocks down the row. "Go get it, Cleveland," he would squeeze me, and I'd jump down, run ahead, and put it in the big drum which we had hung on the back of the tractor for our collection. At the end of the row, we would add these to the border, built up for more than 50 years around this field. Yet and still this field continued to yield new clunks with each plowing.

"God makes them during the winter," Ben told me.

Ben had dropped out of school at 14, but anything he said, convinced me, at least at the time that he said it. Most of the time he just sat silent, concentrating on the noisy tractor. Still short enough not to block his view, I braced myself on the narrow metal strip meant for his feet, and leaned against Ben's legs, just looking and looking and looking.

Ben was Grandmama's only help. Ben's mother, my aunt, and his father both had been killed in separate automobile wrecks, a week apart, when Ben was 13.

"Fancy. Mighty fancy," my mother used to tell me about them, "but a bit dangerous too."

Grandmama kept a picture of Ben's mama and daddy on the shifferobe near where she slept in the room. Ben's mama, my daddy's sister, a pleasantly fat woman with a broad, pretty face, sang the blues at backwoods clubs for black farmers all over South Georgia. His daddy, lean and less noticeable, more or less tagged along, or so I thought then from what Grandmama said whenever I asked about the picture.

Later, while at Stewartville High and no longer going to the farm for summers, I learned that Ben's daddy's accident had happened cause the Clinton County police had driven him off the road at high speed. They used the six cases of bonded whiskey in his trunk to prove that he was into "big crime."

Ben's sister and brother had already grown up and moved away when the two accidents happened. The sister worked as a hair-burner up in Macon, and the older brother worked for a packing house in Tallahassee.

Ben didn't talk about his people much, nor did he seem interested when Grandmama would answer my questions. While Grandmama and I cleaned up after supper, he usually sat over by the kerosene lamp looking at a Jet magazine, or studied his mustache with a pair of trimmers and a small hand mirror.

"You gonna break some gal's heart iffen you don't stop trying to be so pretty," Grandmama would tease him; "God done already give you sexy eyes. Why don't you leave well enough alone?"

Ben would laugh and continue to groom.

After we'd put away everything, sometimes we lolled around on the porch, or swang. In the top of the hickory, Ben had built a treehouse back when he had been my age, but I never got to see the inside of the treehouse. Long before I ever came to visit, Bessy Craddock, the girl who lived at the next house down the road, stepped on a weak limb, fell, and broke her arm. After that, Grandmama laid down the law: the hickory tree was only for swinging.

Sometimes I seem to convolute all evenings into one, so much did I enjoy our times in that swing, but I remember one particular evening as distinct, just for its sunset--dark reds and oranges, and then a streak of royal purple appeared just about as fast as Ben blinked his eyes. He sat on the seat and I sat in his lap, nose almost touching nose, my legs tight around his hips, his large hands clasping my ribs, my arms thrown loosely over his shoulders, as we swang higher and higher and higher. I did not grasp. I knew he held me.

Grandmama went to bed early, got up early. Sunrise. Sunset. That's what her "early" meant. "You young 'ens can do as you please, but if you want to live as long as I have, you'd better be payin attention. Leastaways, don't disturb my rest with no kerosene lamp. Those folks' pictures in Jet seem a bit highfallutin anyways....." She would natter on until she gave us the cue: "Now I'll get into my night clothes."

Ben and I would dutifully step outside. When we came back in, we'd make our way in the dark to our own side of the room. Even without a moon, starlight sufficed. Each of us had a special chair to hang our clothes on. I slipped into some short pajamas Mama had made for me, but hot as Georgia stays at night in summer, Ben slept in his birthday suit.

Some nights, after we'd swung, Ben would not come to bed at once, but would go down the road to see Bessy and her brothers. One night a storm came up unexpectedly after he had left and I had gone to bed. It thundered and lightninged something terrible. Grandmama snored through it all, but I lay awake at least until well after midnight, listening to the rain batter our tin roof, looking at the green hands on Grandmama's wind-up alarm clock, wondering whether Ben was dry.

I awoke when I heard the tractor revving in the dark. He had stayed in the Craddock's barn until the lightning stopped, but had come back to put the tractor under the shed.

A few minutes later, the room deadly dark without even starlight, I felt cool air rush over me. He even sounded wet. I heard him sniffle as he closed the door. I heard him drip as he unlaced his shoes. I heard him peal off his socks. I heard a chair scrape the floor slightly as he tiptoed past it. I heard the zipper. I heard his buckle jiggle on the wooden floor. I heard him breathe and knew he must be arcing his t-shirt over his shoulders. It slapped the chair gently. I heard underwear ping his knees.

Then silence. An interminable silence. Even under the covers I shivered knowing he stood there wet, exposed, although I could see only his blackness shadow the slightly lighter darkness of the room.

I feared my eyes might glow in the dark like the hands on the clock, that he might know that I stared, so I slitted them. I held my breath to hear him breathing, slowly, evenly. A board squeaked slightly. I expected our bed to tilt to his weight, but still he stood there. It seemed an eternity.

When he did get in, he moved to me at once, not after he was asleep, as he usually did. His wet chest sent goosebumps down my back. His thick thighs seemed a bit drier at my hips. He sighed pleasantly through his nose as I warmed him. "Sleep well, my little heater; sleep well," he whispered softly.

I didn't love the outhouse. That's about the only place where I ever thought of Hattie and her "Texas civilization" during the entire summer. Hattie had made it worse, by telling me even before we went to Georgia that first time together, "Snakes lay down there in the holes just waiting to bite any ass black enough and delicious enough to sit there, particularly if they decides to sit there too long. And the spiders. You just look up to the ceiling. They be waitin for you, country bumpkin!"

Mama had told me I should try not to use nasty public restrooms except for liquids, and to plan my days so I'd be near home when I had to go. So the first time that I went to Georgia, already warned by Hattie, I fixed my mind to see the outhouse as a public restroom. When I peeked at it and saw that it was a 2-seater, that cinched it. Besides, the shack stood separate from Grandmama's house. How much more public could you get? I decided to wait all summer until I got back to Texas before I would go again, except for liquids.

By the third day, I must have looked mighty ashen. After supper Grandmama asked, "Boy, you feelin all right?"

"Yessum," I lied.

"You don't look it. Have you vomited or something?"

"Nome. "

"Ben, you be out there with him all day on the tractor. Has this child seemed sick to you?"

"The boy probably just taking time to get used to eatin real food," Ben said, lost in Jet.

"You regular?" Grandmama asked.

Hattie snickered. "Have you gone down with the creepy, crawly snakes every day?" she asked. She had not yet thrown her screaming fit to escape.

"Hush your mouth, girl, or I'll creepy, crawly you," Grandmama said to Hattie. Ben laughed like he was on my side. I bowed my head.

"Answer me, boy," Grandmama said gently.

She finally got out of me that I had been too scared to go. Grandmama wouldn't hear a word of it when I explained that Mama had told me never to use a public restroom.

"Ben, you go down there with him and don't either of you come back until he's done a job, you hear?! Land's sake, all this Texas civilization will be the death of him for sure."

I thought I could not do it with someone else there. At least the restroom at school had partitions for those that dared to use them. Here Ben's thigh touched mine and I nearly choked on the cigar which he lit, "to scare away everything," he said. "Take your time, Cleveland."

It began to get dark fast. We left the door open for the clean air, and looked far down the field where we'd plowed all day long.

"I didn't know that you is circumcised," Ben said.


"I didn't know that you is circumcised," he repeated.

"What's that?"

He reached over and touched the head. "That," he said.

"What's `circumcised'? Ain't you?"

"Nope. See."

He held his up into the twilight. "Pull back the skin like this," he said. Your's been cut that way by the doctor soon as you born.

I looked at his, then at mine. "Is that why yours hard and mine soft?" I asked.

"Soft?" he asked. I had not noticed the hard knot mine had made.

"Why the doctors do that to me?" I asked.

"Beats me," he said. "Must have something to do with Texas Civilization."

I did my job easily now.

"Don't be fraid, Cleveland. Just tell me when you want me here witchya. Besides, see this stick." He leaned and reached just outside the door for an old broom handle he kept there. "You just take this pole and beat on the side before you ever come in here. That'll scare away anything that might harm you. Don't you listen to Hattie or everwho talks that way. Nobody can't make no sissie outa man like you. "

I did not fear the outhouse anymore. Yet and still I waited most times until I knew he was going so I could go at the same time.

I liked being with Ben even better outdoors on the tractor, leaning against his lap, or in the swing, or taking a break in the shade at the far end of the field, or having him snuggle up after he thought I'd gone to sleep. One night while he was still out, I took off my pajamas and hid them on the floor next to the wall under the bed, so Grandmama wouldn't see them and remember that I'd had them on.

One day right there on the tractor I took mine out and studied it. "Why the doctors do that to me?"

"They didn't hurt it none. It's as good as mine," Ben said.

I felt him grow stiff. I turned and tried to straddle him as in the swing.

"Just a minute, child, lessen we kill ourselves on this here machine." He idled it at the end of the row. Far at the other end clean white bedclothes whipped in the sun. In the shade I looked long into Ben's eyes before and after I inspected uncircumcision.

Before Daddy left the air force, we got stationed back in Georgia. When Grandmama fell sick, one of my aunts moved in to take care of her, cause Ben was away in the army. They did not have time or space for children then, and I was too busy with my paper route to laze away a summer in the country.

By the time I took home-ec at Stewartville High, my sisters and brothers had gotten used to me, and were plenty proud when I brought home a national prize for one of my recipes. Besides, I led the parade and had the captain of the football team sneaking over to see me four nights a week.

After I graduated, I took up modeling in the North. I heard that Ben had married, not Bessy Craddock, but a jazz singer named Eula Hines, from Macon. My Mama said Eula was as much a looker as Ben's mama had been, and that she and Ben lived just as dangerously as Ben's mama and daddy had.

So I had not seen Ben for about eighteen years when Grandmama died. I wanted to bring my lover with me, but he decided it wouldn't be right to make our lives upstage theirs, especially at a time of grief. Anyways, Mama and Daddy had already met him and liked him alot. I can't believe he would have surprised the others. But I didn't insist, since probably he would have been bored. He didn't grow up in the South.

Neighbors and family came all over. They brought at least twenty kinds of deviled eggs, ten styles of fried chicken, and as many more of cornbread and collard greens, plus platter after platter of other good eatins. They laid it out on long picnic tables in the pecan grove between the church and the cemetery. Eula's band played gospel music all day inside, before the sermon and the burial in the late afternoon. Since the church was too small to hold all of us at once, we went to and fro, from feast to the funeral in shifts.

About one o'clock, Ben himself arrived. He had filled out lots more, but was still muscle, not fat. I recognized him first by his eyes.

"She was a good woman, Cleveland; a good woman. A real loss to the world."

All those outside came to greet him. Then Ben went in for some of the music. When he came out again, I eased to the same side of the food table so that I could strike up a conversation with at least a touch of privacy. I wanted to get off somewhere to ourselves, maybe alone in Grandmama's room, so I could tell him how much it meant to have learned about myself from someone who loved me, who was gentle, who taught me how to scare away the snakes. Before I met my lover, I discovered many people, women and men, who didn't seem to know that you can also love the person you hold through the night.

I never had heard `gay' when Ben and I were together. When I hit puberty, I needed the word to describe myself, but I never thought Ben was. I still think he is not. But I knew that he had loved me when we did those things together.

"You remember the outhouse?" I asked.

"Cleveland, you were one scared little boy, yes indeed!" he said, and moved on down the table to get some ribs.

"You remember the night you came back from Bessy Craddock's all dripping wet?"

"No. I can't say as I do. Which time?"

"You remember the swing and the tractor?"

"What about 'em?"

"You don't remember?"

"Cleveland, you've grown up a fine young man. I always said you'd go farther than most of us. You may have begun scrawny, but like the turtle the rabbit, you passed us all!"

"You really don't remember, do you?"

"Hey, little brother, what happened a long time ago is not important. Don't go troubling yourself." He forked a deviled egg, nibbled it, and lifted his chin to catch some yolk.

"Man, it sure is good to see you!" He said it like he meant it.

With his eyes, he indicated that perhaps we ought to mingle with the others. I could not find a way to thank him.


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