Skip to main content.

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 Claudy.Maurice 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 left eye.

"You dumb 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 another rock.

"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 the table.

"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 dad.

"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.

"Mom!" Eugene 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 minute."

"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 there."

"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 Maurices' movements.

"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 Maurice.

"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 serpent.

"Anybody ever tell you your ma ought to shut her fat mouth!" Eugene yelled.

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 catch me!"

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.

"Time-out Claudy! We're gonna take a lunch break. You gotta let us come down," Eugene shouted. They climbed down the tree and began walking home.

"Hey Gene," 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 Pinto.

"Well, ask your ma anyway -- maybe she'll let you go."

"Yeah. See ya after lunch."

"Mom!" Eugene 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 asked.

"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 son.

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 ease.

"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.

"Claudy's at 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 screamed.

"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 . . . " Eugene stammered.

"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 space.

"What's wrong, Mom?" Eugene asked, alarmed at his mother's reaction.

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 away!"

"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.

"Hey! Claudy's back!" Maurice shouted. His shrill voice carried with the wind up the length of the alley. Eugene felt his body tremble.

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 him.

"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 at him.

"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 silence.

"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 words?

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.

go to this issue