In my father’s papers I found two cancelled checks. Both were made out to W. A. Edwards and signed by Mrs. H. H. Jackson. Mrs. Jackson was Edwards’ sister. She was also my daddy’s mama and my Grandma Minnie.
From those two checks and my memory, a story emerged.
The “A” in W. A. stood for Artemus, the name my great-uncle went by. Artemus was the Greek goddess of the hunt.
How, you might wonder, could it be that folks from Slapout, Beat 14, Elmore County, Ala., would come to know anything about Greek mythology, much less know of an obscure female deity, much less name a son after her?
Well, I don’t know. I was too taken with the monkey to ask.
I was just a lad when I first encountered Uncle Artemus. My grandmother was hosting her children and grandchildren at the old home place up on Lake Jordan when he swept onto the scene, fluttering and flitting about with stories of Miami, where he lived with his wife and the monkey. There, he was an interior decorator, specializing in making lavish yachts more lavish.
Now, in my father’s family, one-upmanship was a serious sport. Artemus was going to have to offer more than a monkey and Miami to impress that crowd. Unbeknownst to us, he had more to offer.
Meanwhile, the monkey sat sullen off in the corner, played with himself in ways that made you feel you shouldn’t be watching, and snarled at anyone who approached.
“Be careful, he bites,” my cousins and I were told. We spent the rest of the afternoon figuring out ways to get almost bitten.
The adults spent the rest of the afternoon in a cocktail party that lasted up to and into supper.
The meal was nearly finished when Uncle Artemus rose, tapped his glass with a spoon, and when the room fell silent he announced that he was going to read to us a short story he had written. Soon, he said, he would send it to a magazine where it would surely be published to the delight of millions. How honored we should be to hear it first.
It was a pretty good story, all about a boy and his bicycle. Presented with flamboyant gestures and theatrical accents, it was a stage-worthy performance. I was so enthralled that I forgot the monkey.
When he finished, everyone declared that it was a first-rate work. They could not wait to see it in print.
In addition to one-upmanship, and often as a consequence of it, conflict was the norm in my father’s family. When my mother’s relatives got together they would eat, visit and go home happy. When my daddy’s brothers and sisters gathered, they would drink, argue and go home mad.
Agreeing on the merit of Uncle Artemus’ writing was, in and of itself, extraordinary.
The next day, at breakfast, Uncle Artemus enhanced his already considerable status among his nieces and nephews when he announced that he knew just what Grandma’s living room needed.
Yessir, he explained, the windows required something to set them off and he was just the guy to make it happen.
So, after the dishes were cleared away, Uncle Artemus took to measuring the windows from top to bottom, side to side. Fending off any questions, ignoring any suggestions, he assured the family that he had the project well in hand.
The next day, before he left, Grandma Minnie gave him a check for $50 to cover the cost of “Drapery Materials.”
A month passed.
Until finally, in mid-July, Artemus and the draperies arrived.
I was not there for the hanging, but seeing them a few months later, it seemed to my unsophisticated eye that Uncle Artemus had brought Miami style to Slapout.
I cannot recall anyone saying anything about the window decorations, but I got the distinct impression that my grandmother was not pleased.
Finding the cancelled checks, I think I know why.
The second check was for the exorbitant sum of $573.87.
Uncle Artemus had taken $50 worth of material, transformed it into something that would not have been out of place in a Biscayne Boulevard penthouse, and stuck my grandmother with the bill.
So Grandma Minnie paid him. She wrote the check in red ink as if it were blood money. On the line marked “For,” what had been “drapes” were redefined as “curtains” and the work of the artist was reduced to “labor.”
When the cancelled checks were returned, she saved them to remind her that when dealing with family — this family — get the cost in writing in advance.
As for the story of the bicycle, Uncle Artemus never published it. Some guy named Capote had beaten him to it.
My people, my people.