There are two things you need to know before this story begins.
1. My father says rude and inappropriate things, often about my mother. He had a stroke a few years ago. Their relationship has been rocky (which is a little like saying that Lindsay Lohan likes to drink).
2. My boyfriend is African American.
This is a story about singing Dixie.
The scene: Outback Steakhouse, Houston, May 2006. I’m about to graduate from my doctoral program. My disabled father and my mother are in from Indiana. My 88-year-old grandmother, whom we call Crunk Betty, is in from Miami. Other friends from Connecticut and Colorado have made the trek.
What started it all: Someone said, “You’re not just whistling Dixie.”
Brandon turns to me and says, “Did I ever tell you about the time I was singing Dixie and my dad caught me?” I nod my head, and everyone turns toward him, listening.
“My dad heard me singing one day, ‘Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,’ and he got this awful look on his face. He said, ‘Son, what are you singing!’ And I said, ‘Dixie, daddy.’ And he said, ‘Is that what they taught you in school today.’ ‘It sure was,’ I said. And he wrote me a note to give to my teacher the next day. The teacher read it out loud to the class: ‘My son will not be singing Dixie.'”
Everyone sort of laughs, amused at the idea of a miniature, but still resolute, Brandon and his revolt against his Texas teacher’s racist leanings.
And then my dad starts talking. “I had a friend named Jim Webb.”
My dad talks in sentences like this. They are whole paragraphs.
You don’t know.
That they will connect to one another.
Until he’s done.
And he wags his finger about, pointing in your face if he’s talking to you. And he spits a little. And it breaks my heart. “Jim hated his wife,” he says, pointing at Brandon.
“And so he took up with another woman, he got a mistress.” Now he’s pointing at my mother. “Oh, he was so happy after that.”
Everyone’s getting nervous now. The pink elephant in the room happens to be that my mother has had some pretty scandalous affairs. A doctor, her therapist, and the latest, some man I call Mr. Panties who lives in Jacksonville.
My dad continues his story. “Jim was seeing his mistress all the time, every day after work they’d hit the bar together.”
“And her name was Dixie.”
Here he looks up and down the table, surveying his audience, pausing in his pointing to fold his napkin into smaller and smaller triangles. The room is quiet when my father says, “And he’d always be singing that song, “Oh I wish I was in Dixie…..”
My friend Chi choked on her filet. My brother Dustin picked up on my father’s ellipsis and began talking over what can only be described as the stunned-loud silence. My mother looked crazy-embarrassed.
And my father, a few moments later, saw what he had done. And he laughed harder than I’d seen him laugh in years. He practically shattered the shocked but not-disapproving quiet. Laughing like a kid laughs, pleased at his disruption, at his power. Chortling and chewing his steak, the tears running down his gaunt face.
Until we all were laughing–even Crunk Betty, who hadn’t heard the first whistled word of song.