Claudy's Smile by Jenn Muri
published in Volume 5, Issue 1 on March 1st, 1998"Hey,
don't throw those rocks so hard, you'll hurt him!"
Eugene yelled down the alley at Maurice. Even though
Maurice was at a distance, and looked like a toy soldier
that could fit in the palm of the hand, the rocks he'd
thrown flew fast and landed hard, just barely missing
moved closer, reaching into his pouch and picking out a
bigger rock, then threw it even harder than before. This
time the rock hit Claudy on his forehead, right above his
sucker!" Eugene yelled as he kicked a neighbor's
fence post, causing the wire fence to vibrate loudly.
"Your mama's dumb! My
ma says people like Claudy shouldn't be running 'round
the streets, no ways. She says your mama ought to lock
him up somewheres, keep him out of sight," Maurice
shouted as he reached into his home-made belt pouch for
"Hey! He ain't
hurting you none," Eugene yelled at Maurice.
"You tell your ma he don't hurt nobody lessen they
hurt him first." Eugene ran over to his brother,
grabbed him by his arm and led him back into the house.
"Sissies! Sissies! Go
and run behind your mama's tail!" Maurice shouted.
When Eugene got home, his
mother walked past him and looked at the thin line of
crusted blood on Claudy's forehead. She ran her fingers
across all the old scars on Claudy's face, almost the way
a child would run his fingers over the mountain areas of
a relief map. She then quietly took Claudy by the hand
and led him into the bathroom. From the kitchen, Eugene
could hear the bathroom door slam, followed by the faint
sounds of running water and Claudy's laughter; he could
hear his mother moving about the bathroom, talking softly
to Claudy, telling him to stand still or to bend over the
sink. Claudy responded with his usual grunts and spurts
of laughter as he stomped around the small bathroom, as
if trying to escape the demanding voice of his mother.
Eugene laughed to himself; he imagined Claudy and his
mother trapped in the bathroom forever, each one
endlessly playing their role.
At fifteen, Claudy was
four years older than Eugene, but everything was still a
game to him. His mother said Claudy would never grow up,
that emotionally he would always be about three years
old. As Eugene wiped the kitchen table with a soiled dish
rag, he wondered what it would be like to be three years
old again: would his mother talk softly to him again?
When his mother finished
with Claudy she came into the kitchen, stood under the
doorway and rested her weight against the rotted wood
frame while Eugene noisily placed the dinner dishes on
"Eugene, you know
you're supposed to watch him. Why do you let him get all
scratched up like that?" she asked. Eugene started
to answer but noticed that his mother's eyes were closed.
He hated the sudden silence -- he always thought he could
feel death in silence, or whatever it was that made
people go away and forget about the ones they left
behind: He wondered if his mother was thinking about his
"Answer me!" she
demanded, opening her eyes. Startled, Eugene let one of
the dinner dishes drop to the table, then placed his hand
on top of it to stop the rattle.
"He keeps falling
down and bumping into things. I can't make him
stop," Eugene said helplessly. The plate stopped
rattling beneath his hand; Eugene smiled at this small
act of control.
"Well you'd just
better find a way to make him stop! I see you ain't got
no scratches on your face. How come he's falling all over
the place and you just standing around watching? I told
you to watch him -- not watch him fall!" she said.
Her body arched slowly forward, the way it always did
when she was upset with him. It used to frighten him, but
ever since his dad left, her arched body only seemed to
make her movements look slow and heavy -- as if moving
her body took all the strength she had.
said in defeat, as he reached into the table drawer for
the dinner utensils. The silver had rubbed off all of the
knives and forks, leaving little black spots everywhere.
When he was younger, he used to search the drawers for
the missing silver.
"If only your father
were here . . .," her voice caught in her throat
where it stayed for a moment then came out hoarsely.
"But he done crossed over to the other side and I
know he's burning in Hell. Even the Good Lord can't help
him no more." She sighed, shaking her head, her
mouth drawn tight in anger. The 'other side' was really
Georgetown, or 'Gomorrah', as Maurice's mother often
called it. Eugene loved to listen to Maurice's mom tell
stories about the white folks sinning in the streets of
Gomorrah. She often told Eugene to "Praise Jesus
that your soul is black." He, of course, assured her
that he did.
When Claudy came into the
room he bumped his hip against the table's edge as his
mother pulled out a chair for him. The top of the table
was the color of a pea when its mushed and lightly soaked
in chicken broth. His mother sat down next to Claudy and
gave him a playful pinch on his arm while Eugene brought
the huge pot of beans and chopped hot dogs to the table,
making sure he placed it close to his mother. She scooped
up a spoonful of beans from the pot and placed it on
Claudy's plate, then she started to fill her own plate.
As Eugene sat across from her, she placed the large spoon
back inside the pot. From the small radio on top of the
refrigerator, he could hear Sam Cooke crooning,
"Summertime, and the living is easy . . ."
Eugene looked at his
mother and asked, "Mom, how come I gotta take him
out every day?"
Claudy was contently
trying to stuff his mouth with as much food as he could.
His mother quickly reached over and tried to slow his
movements. "Not so fast, baby -- you don't want to
choke, do you?" she said softly to him, then looked
over at Eugene. "You know I need some sleep before
goin' to work at night. I can't watch him every single
"Why don't you put
him in a special home or something? Some place where they
got people like him. I'm sure he'd be happier
"Would you be happier
if I put you in a home, too?" she asked as she
picked at the food on her plate.
"When can I go?"
Eugene asked with mock enthusiasm.
His mother sat quietly at
the table, her eyes focused on the hot dogs and beans in
her plate. Eugene waited for her to say something.
Instead, she poked her fork slowly around each bean on
her plate, as if somehow what she felt inside could be
defined by this careful probing. Eugene felt the hardness
of his fork between his fingers -- it felt cold; he held
it firmly for a moment longer before placing it quietly
next to his plate. He patiently waited for his mother to
break the silence.
The next day Eugene sat
outside and waited for Claudy. The early morning sun had
warmed the porch steps and he could feel the hot concrete
against his bare legs. He picked up a twig and snapped it
into little pieces, his patience growing thinner with
each snap of the twig -- snaps that grew louder and more
insistent as the twig became smaller and harder to break.
"Eugene, you can take
him out now," his mother called out from inside the
house, her voice sounding pained and thinned.
Eugene got up off the
porch steps; the dirt clung dryly to his legs in an oval
shaped cluster on the back of his calves. He opened the
screen door for Claudy. At four feet eleven inches, they
were almost the same height -- but Claudy's body appeared
to press against the ground with movements that seemed
forced and uneasy, giving him an unbalanced posture.
Claudy looked at Eugene and smiled, as he always did,
with a wide, toothy grin. Eugene turned away and walked
toward the alley way; Claudy followed behind with short,
uneven footsteps that scraped out odd rhythms against the
dirty bricks. Eugene tried not to focus on the sound, but
it was all he heard. At the base of the alley Eugene saw
Maurice waiting for them, his long spidery arms and legs
in constant motion; Eugene laughed as he focused on
"Hey Claudy! Can you
catch me?" Maurice shouted as he ran and gathered
rocks from the back yards that lined the alley. He threw
the rocks in quick succession, hitting Claudy on his arms
and mid-torso. Claudy screamed as he dashed after
"Hey Maurice -- no
rocks, okay?" Eugene shouted.
Maurice jerked the pouch
from his belt and dumped the rocks on the ground; he held
the empty bag in the air and waved it about, as if in a
gesture of surrender.
"Okay, I'll give
y'all a break this time," Maurice said. "I know
you can't help being such a wimp -- it runs in your
family. My ma says your daddy ain't nothing but a wimp --
that's why he done run off with that white woman. And
your mama's so shamed, she only comes out at night. Ma
said your daddy ain't nothing but an oreo cookie and you
just one of his crumbs!"
Eugene knew Maurice was
only trying to hurt him -- what did they really know
about white folks anyway? To him, they were just faces
that stared back at him from the t.v. screen. But
Maurice's mother talked about white folks a lot, and from
her he sensed a certain evil -- like the forbidden fruit
-- and he knew, by the look on her face when she talked
about them that somehow his dad had been tempted by the
"Anybody ever tell
you your ma ought to shut her fat mouth!" Eugene
Maurice didn't hear him
because he'd already taken off down the alley, still
waving his empty belt-pouch, caught up in his own
excitement. Eugene sighed and shook his head, thinking
"that's my buddy!" -- and after a slight
hesitation he ran after Maurice, joining him in shouting,
"Hey Claudy! Over here! I'm over here -- try and
Maurice and Eugene ran in
and out of back yards full of rusty car parts that laid
hidden under overgrown hawkweeds and fallen black locust
pods. A few of the yards had wire fences they could jump
or old garages, made of stone and sheet metal they could
hide behind. When they got tired, they climbed a willow
oak tree in one of the back yards, and watched Claudy
from above. Claudy wrapped his arms loosely around the
base of the tree as he jumped up and down in an effort to
push himself up.
"Hey Claudy? You
tryin' to pick up this tree or somethin'?" Maurice
taunted. "It won't work, Claudy Claude Claude! You
ain't that strong, ole boy! You ain't got what it takes,
ha ha ha!" Maurice rolled with laugher as he
balanced himself on a tree branch by holding onto an
upper branch with both hands. "Hey Gene, your
brother thinks he's Herman Munster or something. What you
been telling him, my boy?"
"Hey Claudy, you want
me to push him down for you?" Eugene yelled down at
Claudy while shaking the tree branch Maurice was holding
onto. Maurice started to laugh even harder as he and
Eugene playfully shook tree branches while pretending
they were about to lose their balance. From below they
could hear Claudy laughing along with them.
We're gonna take a lunch break. You gotta let us come
down," Eugene shouted. They climbed down the tree
and began walking home.
Maurice said before turning toward his house, "My
dad's going camping this weekend, and he said I can bring
someone. You wanna come?"
"You know I can't go
nowhere without Claudy."
Eugene picked up a rock
and threw it high in the air, thinking about how much he
hated his dad. At least when his dad lived with them,
Eugene knew he could leave Claudy at home some of the
time. The rock spun high up into the air; he watched as
it came down and landed with a thud on the roof of an old
"Well, ask your ma
anyway -- maybe she'll let you go."
"Yeah. See ya after
yelled as soon as he reached their back porch steps.
The house remained quiet
and for a brief moment Eugene thought maybe his mother
had left him too, but when he entered the kitchen, he saw
her making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He walked
up to her, and even when he stood next to her, she didn't
look away from the sandwiches on the sink counter; when
he moved closer to her, she moved away, as if to give
herself more space. Eugene sensed at that moment he was
without meaning; at least, he couldn't figure out what he
meant to her. Dragging his feet, he walked over to the
radio and turned it on, and the WOL dj's voice cracked
the silence with a voice deep enough to fill the room.
Eugene's mother still did not turn to look at him, so he
sat in a chair facing her backside and watched her go
through the motions of preparing lunch. He silently
directed Claudy to sit in the chair next to him.
"Maurice wants me to
go camping with him this weekend. Can I go?" Eugene
"No, you can't go. I
need you to stay here and watch Claudy for me. I can't
give up my weekend job just so you can go running off
like a rat in the woods."
"Least rats have
fun," Eugene said. "I never have fun."
"So whoever said life
was fun?" his mother asked, still not looking at her
She slapped peanut butter
on top of week-old bread and placed that slice on top of
a jellied slice. When she turned around to give Claudy
his sandwich, Eugene got up from his chair and ran out
the back door. He heard the sound of the screen door
banging loudly behind him, followed by the voice of his
mother yelling, "Eugene! Eugene, come back right
this minute, you hear!"
When Eugene turned the
corner from their back yard, he saw Maurice at the base
of the alley; the pounding of his heart slowly began to
"Hey! Where's my
buddy, Claudy?" Maurice shouted. Before Eugene
reached the base of the alley, Maurice started to jump up
and down, his arms waving wildly.
home," Eugene shouted back, slowing down to a fast
walk, his head held high. "I can go outside without
Claudy, you know!"
Eugene noticed that
Maurice had already gathered up his supply of rocks; he
could see the bulge in the belt-pouch. Maurice reached
into his pouch, took out a large rock and threw it at
Eugene, hitting him just above the knee. Stopping in
mid-stride, Eugene bent over and held his knee in
exaggerated pain. He began to hop about on one foot,
making sure Maurice realized he was hurt.
"Hey Maurice, I'm not
Claudy! Ain't nothing wrong with me!" Eugene
"You his brother,
ain't you?" Maurice shouted back as he got another
rock from his pouch and threw it at Eugene, this time
scraping his forearm.
"My ma says . . . ,
" Maurice began.
Eugene didn't wait to hear
what Maurice's mother had to say. He turned around and
ran back to his house. Inside his house he confronted his
mother, who was standing near the back screen door.
"Why'd you go running
off without Claudy?" his mother yelled at him.
"I just . . . "
"And what's the
matter with you, running in here like a wild
cat?" She looked down at the cut above his
knee. "What happened to you?" she asked.
"I fell down,"
Eugene lied, then looked down at his leg. He held his leg
up for his mother to examine.
"Well you'd better go
clean yourself up," she said as she turned and
walked away from him.
The following day Eugene
refused to go outside at all. By the weekend he grew
tired of pacing the floor and started to pound his fist
against the wall.
"I'll get him -- wait
till school starts. I'll get a gang of kids to jump him
and pull his tongue out. That'll teach him," Eugene
said to the wall.
Claudy walked over to
Eugene and handed him his toy spinning-top. Eugene jerked
the toy out of his brother's hand and flung it hard
against the wall. It cracked into small pieces,
scattering the black floor tiles with multicolored
shapes. Claudy screamed and rushed over to his
crushed toy, then fell hard to his knees. From the corner
of his eye, Eugene watched his brother's shadow on the
wall; Claudy's chubby dark shadow-fingers moved in
agonizingly slow motion as he tried to fit together the
pieces of the broken toy.
By the following day,
Claudy no longer came up to Eugene; instead he hovered in
the corner of the room until their mom came in, before
going off to her night job, and prepared him for bed.
During the long, warm nights Eugene began to hate the
sound of his brother's heavy breathing. The rasping
sounds would rise up and down in uneven rhythms that
seemed to hold onto the stillness in the air and make the
time stand still. Once, when he heard his brother sputter
and groan, knowing it meant Claudy wanted to use the
bathroom, Eugene just covered his head with a pillow
until it was too late for him do anything. When he
finally heard his mother's key in the lock, he shut his
eyes and pretended to be asleep. His mother came into
their bedroom and angrily shook Eugene, asking him,
"Don't you smell that? Why didn't you help him clean
himself up?" Eugene looked up at his mother and
sleepily replied, "Smell what?"
One day, after Eugene had
been indoors for almost a week, his mother stood in front
of the TV set and turned it off, loudly jamming the power
button with her knuckle, then she turned around quickly
and looked directly at him.
"Why don't you go
outside? I'm tired of looking at you!" she yelled.
"I don't want to go
outside anymore," Eugene stated flatly. He wished
she'd turn the TV back on; he wanted to see if Mr. Ed
could outsmart Wilbur again.
"Does this have
something to do with that camping trip?" she asked.
"No, I didn't really
want to go camping with Maurice."
"Oh really? What's
wrong with Maurice all of a sudden?"
"He's just a jerk,
that's all. He's always throwing rocks at Claudy just
'cause he's different from us," Eugene said, hoping
this information would allow him to remain inside. He was
also somewhat annoyed at the sudden attention his mother
was giving him.
"Throwing rocks? At
my baby! Lord, Jesus!" His mother covered her mouth
with her hands, then sat on the sofa and stared into
Mom?" Eugene asked, alarmed at his mother's
His mother was silent for
a long time. Her lips began to twitch and he thought for
a moment she was about to cry. But he knew better: to his
mother, silence was only an empty space to fall into when
she didn't want to be bothered with him anymore. This he
was sure of.
"Can I stay
inside?" Eugene asked meekly.
"No, you can't stay
inside!" she said, jerking her head up.
"There's nothing wrong with being different -- don't
you ever let someone else's stupidity make you hide
"But Maurice's ma
said you hide away 'cause Dad ran off with that . . .
"Maurice's ma is a
fool! And so are you if you think I'd let those two
hell-bound heathens . . " There was a long
pause, then, "Oh Lord, forgive me for what I'm
thinking," she said, looking up at the ceiling as if
that posture would be enough to rescue her. She then
looked at Eugene and yelled, "You get on outside and
take Claudy with you!"
"Mom. I don't want
"Am I askin' you what
you want? Did you hear me? I said get on out of this
house right this minute!"
Eugene reluctantly got up
and walked toward the door. When he turned around, he
noticed that Claudy was standing directly behind him. For
a brief moment Eugene felt as if he were standing next to
himself, or next to some alternate part of himself that
he never knew existed until then. It was a strange
feeling, this doubleness -- this sense of seeing yourself
outside yourself -- that his first instinct was to run.
But then Claudy smiled, and Eugene reached over and
lightly punched his brother's shoulder.
At the base of the alley
they saw Maurice.
back!" Maurice shouted. His shrill voice carried
with the wind up the length of the alley. Eugene felt his
Maurice picked up a rock
and threw it at Claudy. Eugene watched, motionlessly, as
Claudy ran directly into the rock, then off towards
Maurice. Eugene's vision blurred as Maurice and Claudy
dashed up and down the alley, and for a moment he
considered standing in that spot until the ground gave up
and took him under. Instead, when Maurice came running
toward him, Eugene moved to block his path, forcing
Maurice to stop. The sudden stop caused Maurice's
rock-pouch to fall from his belt and some of the rocks
rolled out nto the alleyway. In his confusion,
Maurice looked at Eugene briefly before he stepped back
and threw a hard punch that landed just below Eugene's
left eye. Eugene staggered and fell backwards onto the
broken alley bricks. He could hear Maurice moving toward
"You come any closer,
I'll kill you!" Eugene screamed up at Maurice.
Maurice backed off,
staring curiously at Eugene who lay in the center of the
alley with both hands covering his left eye. After a few
steps backwards, Maurice turned around, spat on the
ground and said, "Not behind my mother's tail,"
the way they always did whenever they saw a dead rat.
Maurice laughed as he walked away down the alley. Eugene
stayed on the ground, listening to Maurice cursing and
laughing out loud, until finally all was silent.
Eugene stood up and waited
for his brother to stop running about. In the confusion,
Claudy seemed not to realize he wasn't chasing Maurice
anymore. With a quick motion of his hand, Eugene gestured
for Claudy to come with him, and finally they were
walking side-by-side up the alley. Eugene picked up a
rock and tossed it up in the air. As the rock came down,
he kicked it with the tip of his sneakers and watched it
fly up the alley. Claudy laughed when Eugene looked over
"Hey, you wanna try
it?" Eugene asked. He picked up another rock and
threw it up in front of his brother. Claudy kicked
wildly, with one foot then the other, his arms flying out
at his sides. He missed the rock.
"One day maybe I'll
show you how to do it, okay?" Eugene laughed as he
looked over at his brother. Claudy walked beside him in
"Say Okay. Ohhhh -
Kaaay. Can you say that?" Eugene demanded. Claudy
grunted and fell behind.
There seemed to be
something in the air heavier than words; something that
his mother and Claudy knew a lot about but could never
seem to make him understand. He wasn't sure he wanted to
understand. After all, what power did they have? Wasn't
it words that finally drove Maurice away? And wouldn't
words bring his dad back? How could his mother and Claudy
ever expect him to know what they wanted of him without
Eugene looked behind him
at his brother and frowned, as if to say "Well, what
do you want?" Claudy smiled at him, as he always
did, with a large toothy grin. Eugene noticed an almost
sickly sweet scent coming with the warm breeze sweeping
across the willows, the alley garbage and the dry summer
dirt; he noticed the feeling of hard rocks rolling easily
beneath his sneakers, and the soft play of wind against
his skin, and he knew that there was nothing he wanted to
say at that moment. Instead, he slowed his pace so that
his brother wouldn't have to lag too far behind.