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Digging Ditches

Debra Dickerson

My brother got in trouble at work again. There's nothing unusual about that, though. Management finds him unsettling, partly for the same reasons that most people would: he's large, easily angered, and Black. My little brother will be 32 this summer. I never thought he'd live to see 20, and I used to tell him so. Once, I came home carrying a newly cleaned black dress. I found that, as usual, he'd made a mess and eaten most of the food I'd cooked for the family's dinner. When I chastised him, as usual, he called me a bitch. I thrust the black dress at him like a tarot card signifying his imminent demise.

"I think I'll wear this one to your funeral," I said matter-of-factly. I may be a bitch but you're no good.

For about five years I hardly spoke to my brother. Only our mother treated him like a relative. Or tried to. The rest of us, his five older sisters, pretty much hated him. You could say he deserved it. I don't know anymore.

He spent those years getting expelled and arrested. Hanging with gold-toothed, gutter-mouthed crotch-clutchers named like Spike Lee characters: Doo-man, Cool Rob, Packy, Manky. Disappearing for days at a time. Then reappearing bruised and bloody-faced to ruin holiday dinners and make everyone miserable with his self-absorbed animality. He disgusted me.

Then, when he was about 21, I invited him to live with me. He'd calmed down but was still living off Mama and not letting sporadic, dead-end employment keep him from his true calling as a professional dope smoker. He was less a pig, but I still had no respect for him. So I invited him to Maryland, my treat. I bet he was surprised. But I had a plan. I took him in to prove to our mother that no amount of support and investment in him would pay off. I did it to get him away from her. To keep her away from him, bail bondsmen, and emergency rooms. I was undertaking an unpleasant duty, throwing myself on the grenade.

When I recall my plan now, I can't help thinking back to Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis where the old folks would cackle when we sang:

Dig one ditch
you better dig two
Cause the trap you set
just might be for you.

So my brother came to Maryland and I greeted him with a long list of rules and "things I would not tolerate." It was basically the same spiel I used when my seven-year-old nephew visited. My brother just nodded and looked away. He'd driven in at about 4:30 AM. By 8 AM he was out job-hunting and by the end of the day had not one but two. It couldn't last.

So I waited for him to fail. I waited for him to steal from my purse or pawn my TV set so I could pass him on to the next sister in line. I waited for him to get arrested so I could not bail him out, as specified in the house rules. But he wouldn't play the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Game with me. He never acknowledged my disapproving scrutiny. He just took it.

We ended up sitting at my kitchen table drinking beer and eating popcorn into the small hours. He told me the story of his life. He introduced himself to me. We might have been two strangers chatting in a waiting room for all we'd known of each other. Two strangers--once separated by tragedy, now reunited--who suddenly realize they're siblings.

Bobby told me screamingly funny stories of taunting the cops, misadventures with women, street corner hoops. I was mesmerized. I was a good girl, I had never ever hung out on the streets; this was a window onto a whole new world. He is a natural storyteller. How can you grow up in the same house with someone and not know that? W

But what I remember best are his heartbreaking stories, told without self-pity or rationalization. When he was nine or so, he was bused from our stable working-class area to a school in a much poorer, much tougher neighborhood. That much we knew. But we hadn't known that on his first day, as he got off the bus, local toughs punched him in his face, took his watch and his lunch. These were his classmates. So the curly-haired, pretty little boy with five older sisters and no father began a nightmarish initiation into street life. We didn't know.

He told me about the violence and degradation he endured at Stowe Elementary School in the north St. Louis inner city. Once, in a rare moment of triumph, he hit a home run in a softball game. The little girls cheered him; they loved the soft, curly hair and pretty features he'd inherited from our mother. He flew around the bases feeling like Babe Ruth, he said. But this was not allowed. One of the boys who hated him, his neat clothes and his neatly packed lunches, waited for him at home plate. Bobby slowed down, he said, praying to be thrown out and avoid having to face the boy, who wasn't even in the game. But no one dared throw my brother out and draw this boy's fire. He ended up walking slowly, pre-defeated, to claim the home run he no longer wanted.

When he shuffled on to home plate, the boy punched him in the stomach. Which wasn't so bad. But then he made him go all the way back to first base and off the field. Not directly from home plate. No. He was made to completely retrace his steps and undo his home run, base-by-base. He told no one. He can't say why now.

Our father was a big, burly truck-driving former (never 'ex') Marine. He fought on Okinawa. He was tough. He rolled his own for 40 years because filters were weak and died of lung cancer three days before my Senior Prom. He had a violent temper that built upon some small infraction we'd commit and just kept growing and growing until he was white hot with righteous fury. He sang beautiful baritone solos at church and when he laughed his whole body shook. He would shake uncontrollably, tears streaming down his face. Then my parents separated when Bobby was nine and like many men, my father reinvented himself as a bachelor. Which was better, really, because he used to do that 'Be a man' nonsense with my brother. As though beating on him would make him grow up.

I suppose he was merely a product of his time. Depression-era share-cropping rural Jim Crow southern Baptist Tennessee. Life was hard. But it must be said that our father taught his son that to be a man is to pound everyone around you into submission and prove your place at the center of, well, everything.

My brother did not take his man-lessons well. He became withdrawn and afraid of the littlest noises. If you reached toward him at dinner for the cornbread, he'd cover his head and cower. He developed this weird blinking thing. He set small fires and cut holes in the curtains. We thought him strange. What's wrong with that boy, we'd ask each other. He infuriated our father. Then, when they separated, Daddy disappeared from our lives. We girls had each other and our wonderful mother. My brother had six women, the gangsters at school, and rejection from the father he feared but still wanted to be with.

So my brother finished his man-training on the streets. My father and the hoodlums laid the foundation. Puberty did the rest. He got bigger and madder and stopped cowering. He stopped blinking. He started fighting back. He started fighting for no reason. Sitting at our Maryland kitchen table, he remembered clearly the first time he fought back and the feeling of satisfaction, even though he was soundly beaten. "I beat that boy," he said, "'til it wasn't nothin' left of my Batman lunchbox but the handle."

I asked him why he decided to fight and he gave me the weariest, most dust-covered look I have ever seen outside the Third World. Then, inspecting his beer intently, he said "You know Debbie, you just get tired. All I knew for sure was I was tired of getting pushed around."

So why did he stop fighting and marauding, give up street life? He shrugs the question off, as if reclaiming one's life from certain destruction is a mere hat trick. My guess is he stopped fighting because he was tired again. Tired of being a teen-aged failure. Tired of being an able-bodied burden. Tired of self-elimination from his family. I think he wanted to come home. To the mother who never lost faith in him and to the five sisters who did.

Once while we lived together I planned to take my brother to an upscale DC bar. But he didn't own a tie. Undaunted, I went door to door in my building and borrowed one. Then he annoyed me by dawdling with it untied around his neck when I was ready to go. Finally he told me, brusquely ashamed, that he didn't know how to tie it. My father-- who taught him that hitting is the way to express disapproval, that real men don't clean up their own messes--didn't teach him to tie a tie. Everything I learned about being a woman I learned from my mother, and I pattern my life after hers. My brother had to unlearn my father's teachings and train himself to be a decent man.

So, this is how my brother, now the spitting image of our father, got in trouble at work. He was bragging about me to a management wonk.

Wonk: Law school?
Bro: Yeah.
Wonk: To-be-a-lawyer law school?
Bro: Yeah, man. (Wonk looks unconvinced.)
Wonk: So where does she go?
Bro: Harvard.
Wonk: You mean Howard.
Bro: No, man, Harvard.
Wonk: Howard in DC, right?
Bro: No, man, Harvard in Boston.
Wonk: Howard?
Bro: Harvard.

Nothing he could say could convince this man that the big Black waiter could have a sister at Harvard Law School. At first he was angry, but then Bobby found himself laughing in the wonk's face and asking him off and on all day, "Why my sister cain't go to Harvard, man?"
My 'poorly educated' brother has learned to confront his anger so that nobody gets hurt, nobody gets arrested. Still, he got in trouble at work--for an attitude problem. He was officially counseled.
In the ten years since my little brother and I made peace, he has quit drugs cold turkey and remained steadily employed and self-supporting. These days, he's a security guard in a resort area. He jokes that he's the fox in charge of the chicken coop but anyone who knows him now knows better; he is a management favorite. Ironically, his past has made him uncannily prescient at detecting potential trouble spots and dealing with trouble makers. Only drunks and pickpockets now face the ferocity he once reserved for his family, and society at large.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review

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