“I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has always been my music; it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ‘cause what you’re there for is to please the people.” -Louis Armstrong
“He’s a musician,” my mother said in the car. There was a lilt of amusement in her voice, curiosity at the prospect of my grandmother bringing her boyfriend to a family gathering.
Looking back to the first time I met Howard Estes, the man who would become the closest thing I would ever know to a paternal grandfather, is like walking around without my glasses and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. My memories from being 7 years old are clumsy and out-of-focus. I remember loose details like setting and characters, but the exact dialogue and plot lines sometimes escape me. I don’t know whose birthday we were celebrating, but I do recall the small shelter we’d reserved at a local park. I cannot recall if my father offered any words in the car on the drive there, but I do feel the tension from the front seat, his shoulders set like fence posts. And I remember my own confusion at the concept of Bonnie having a boyfriend.
Grandma Bonnie had always just been Grandma Bonnie. Her existence, her name, had never been part of a pair, like the other married people I knew. My parents. Aunts and uncles. My maternal grandparents. Scott and June. Dwayne and Barb. Ione and Eldon. Bonnie had always just been Bonnie. Or Bonita, more specifically, but you didn’t dare call her that. Unless you were my father, whom she would abruptly slug in the shoulder.
There was always tension in seeing my father’s side of the family. Fissures in the bedrock of the family had spread for decades, the byproduct of an absent patriarch who’d left them high and dry. Pops was persistent, craving so desperately the kind of family who enjoyed holidays, gatherings and celebrations together, without the disruption of ugly baggage. While his two brothers were distant, he rallied the families together once or twice a year, and called his mother every week. Rarely was he rewarded for his efforts. If he missed a single phone call to Grandma, she would berate him with guilt-inducing quips.
“Oh, and here I thought you’d moved away,” sang her voice in a hollow tune.
For this reason, I never developed the kind of close relationships children often form with their cousins. Many of them lived close, just a few miles away, but they may as well have been strangers. My sisters and I stuck close at these gatherings, giggling at a goofy aunt, hovering near the potato salad. We would secure seats near my mother who arranged plastic forks and plates over and over, stirred beans and organized napkins like she was hired to do so. When she did spark communication with other relatives, if was forced, a script she’d planned on the way there. Most conversations fell flat, and rarely went beyond simple responses about school, work, and sports. Those who couldn’t handle the silence talked too much, irritating the group. The men here were the hardest working people I’ll ever know. They drank hard, smoked hard, fought hard. Roofers and factory workers and farmers. Callused hands and thorny glances. Throw in the hard attitudes and opinions from grown men that didn’t know how to articulate their estrangement, and a simple disagreement could lead to an uncomfortable screaming match and an abrupt end to a sunny day in the country. Then, a few months later, when the water would go from full boil to gentle simmer, we would try it all again.
Again, it’s vague, but I saw him across the park, walking toward the shelter. Grandma’s hair has been white for as long as I’ve been around, and it was unmistakable from fifty yards away. What was even more noteworthy was the tall man next to her. That sticks with me like gum to a shoe. Crimson pants. I’d never seen a man wear that color. White tank-top undershirt visible beneath a thin material, lemonade-colored shirt. His head bobbed under a green visor, the kind poker players wear under low-hanging lights. Howard Estes was the antithesis of the men around me. Though some of my father’s kin were tall, most were thick-armed and stout in the chest. Howard was lanky. His steps were purposeful, but loping, an easy confidence in his stride. I never had the chance to ask him how he felt that first day, walking up to meet the family. I have no idea what he knew about us, or how volatile his presence might be.
My grandmother’s quick, jabbing steps tried to keep up beside him, clutching her large purse from falling off her shoulder as she stepped through the uneven grass. I can’t recall the first thing Howard ever said to me, though I’m sure it was laced with humor and a wide smile. That was his way. What I do remember is how he stood after he reached us and the introductions were complete. Comfortably. Fists planted at his hips, surveying the surroundings, a smug grin above his slightly protruding belly. Sort of a, “Well, here I am,” approach. There was a quiet confidence in him that impressed me. While others in the family couldn’t see past the Arkansas drawl, or the loud colors of his wardrobe, I watched him more carefully. Howard wouldn’t have to talk to be part of the group, and even in his silence you could see his brain working all the time. When he did, he could take over a room with his unbelievable stories, leave you hanging with the long pauses at critical points. Countless times I would see that same stance of his in the years ahead: on the golf course planning his next shot, surveying a spread of food at Thanksgiving, breaking down the pitcher behind a chain link fence at one of my baseball games. Always calm. Always confident. A smile not far from his mouth.