Stella Ridley Eight



Men were not much in our lives.  Papaw was very much in our lives, and we knew that he had done manly things—had fought in a war, plowed fields, worn a suit and tie to an office somewhere, and so forth–but those things were in the past, and by virtue of his age and function as Matu’s helper, he was really a kind of honorary woman. Our little orbit had some men in it—male relatives, family friends, female friends’ husbands, sons, boyfriends—but we saw them only briefly and at a distance, usually just before we were banished to the banister or the bed when an adult party was getting into full swing.  There was my second father, Uncle Robert, of course, but he was in some kind of business that required him to spend practically all of his time in what Aunt Deena called “exotic, mosquito-infested locales.”  He was home three times a year—at Christmas and Easter for a few days, and then in the summer for a weeks’ vacation with the family, a week that he spent mostly on the telephone.  He always brought us lovely jewelry or objets d’art, the latter made of materials that were later outlawed for such uses.  He phoned at least once a month, and he clearly adored Matu—unless I misunderstood the way he looked at her when she didn’t know he was looking, kind of like the way Wolf looked at the bowl in which his meal was being prepared.  And he loved his family, and when he was around, he lavished his robust love on all of us.  Still, I never had a Daddy-type name for him—my childish pronunciation of his name as “Uncle Robber” stuck for me.  Once when I called him Uncle Robber, Matu got down on my level and moving her mouth in an exaggerated way said, “Rob-urt. Urttttt, Tella.”  I was very confused, thought she was telling me to say “Robber Urt,” but Uncle Robber immediately said, “Don’t correct the child, darling.  I rather like it.  It makes me feel like a swashbuckler.  And perhaps she has had some insight into my character, eh?”  He said this last smiling broadly, putting his arm around Matu’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze.  Perhaps I have imagined since that she winced.

It always took me awhile to warm to Uncle Robber, perhaps because I was jealous of the way he took Matu away from us when he phoned or was at home, or because I was protective of Matu, or even because I was attracted to him in some creepy infantile way.  But I think it was just that I saw him so seldom: he was only an occasional man.  As I got older, I came to understand his devotion to his work and his charm, and I learned much about him, both good and bad, that made him a steadier figure in my life.  But I had no such understanding at the time that I am speaking of.  It doesn’t matter anyway–one’s daddy doesn’t count as a man-man any more than the boys one grows up with count as man-men except by special dispensation.

When Molly and I thought about or discussed Men, we had men we did not know in mind, and even the usually intrepid Molly was shy around such men.  We were afraid of them, a bit awed by them, voraciously curious about them.  They seemed so foreign to us that we often stared at them as if they were exhibits in some zoo.  When we were quite young, we followed the Mail Man from house to house whenever we saw him, although “stalked” him would be a more accurate characterization of what we did. And we followed the pest control man—the Bug Man—all over the house and yard until Matu finally impressed upon us that was spraying poison for bugs.  Actually, we quit following the Bug Man only because it made Matu so upset.  The bit about the poison didn’t scare us at all because—and Matu didn’t know this—we routinely rode our tricycles behind the Mosquito Truck that drove slowly through the neighborhood filling the streets and yards with an enticing, delicious-smelling cloud of poison.  We really loved the Mosquito Truck, though we never saw the Mosquito Man.

Despite our positive experience with deliverers of mail and dispensers of poisons, we were afraid of what we called The Strange Man, afraid in the same way we might have been afraid of ghosts or monsters: repulsed and intrigued at once.  There was one candidate for The Strange Man that we watched carefully, the Butcher Man at the local market.  He was very tall and lanky, and his head, forearms, and hands were too big for his body, and there was something scarily mechanical about the way he moved.  (Years later, Uncle Robber brought the family some shadow puppets from Bali, and when he held the first one up for us to admire, Molly and I looked at each other and simultaneously said “The Butcher Man!”)  When Matu went to the glass case to point and ask about this or that and place an order, we would hang back, wide-eyed, and just stare at him, even though Matu had given us several lectures about the rudeness of staring.

In some universe, to some female somewhere, I suppose the Butcher Man might have been an attractive man—someone had told him he was, or he imagined he was, or maybe he was just insane.  When Matu was standing there waiting and using the time to review her shopping list, he would slyly look at us while he was cutting or slicing or hacking or grinding or pounding.  He would cock his head to the side and repeatedly wink at us, and once he pursed his lips up and sent a slow, wet kiss our way.  Everything about him and his work was made to seem sharply clean and efficient—the glass, the butcher paper, the knives and equipment, the white coat and hat he wore.  But he seemed sloppy and somehow filthy to us, and the smell of the meat we associated with him became repulsive.  We announced rather casually at dinner one night that we would no longer eat meat, and we refused to do so until Matu just gave up and let us be vegetarians, which we still are to this day.

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