And You Wonder Why We Get Called the Weird Watsons
Excerpted from The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
It was one of those super-duper-cold Saturdays. One of those days that when you breathed out your breath kind of hung frozen in the air like a hunk of smoke and you could walk along and look exactly like a train blowing out big, fat, white puffs of smoke.
It was so cold that if you were stupid enough to go outside your eyes would automatically blink a thousand times all by themselves, probably so the juice inside of them wouldn't freeze up. It was so cold that if you spit, the slob would be an ice cube before it hit the ground. It was about a zillion degrees below zero.
It was even cold inside our house. We put sweaters and hats and scarves and three pairs of socks on and still were cold. The thermostat was turned all the way up and the furnace was banging and sounding like it was about to blow up but it still felt like Jack Frost had moved in with us.
All of my family sat real close together on the couch under a blanket. Dad said this would generate a little heat but he didn't have to tell us this, it seemed like the cold automatically made us want to get together and huddle up. My little sister, Joetta, sat in the middle and all you could see were her eyes because she had a scarf wrapped around her head. I was next to her and on the outside was my mother.
Momma was the only one who wasn't born in Flint so the cold was coldest to her. All you could see were her eyes too, and they were shooting bad looks at Dad. She always blamed him for bringing her all the way from Alabama to Michigan, a state she called a giant icebox. Dad was bundled next to Joey, trying to look at anything but Momma. Next to Dad, sitting with a little space between them, was my older brother, Byron.
Byron had just turned thirteen so he was officially a teenage juvenile delinquent and didn't think it was "cool" to touch anybody or let anybody touch him, even if it meant he froze to death. Byron had tucked the blanket between him and Dad down into the cushion of the couch to make sure he couldn't be touched.
Dad turned on the TV to try to make us forget how cold we were but all that did was get him in trouble. There was a special news report on Channel 12 telling how bad the weather was and Dad groaned when the guy said, "If you think it's cold now, wait until tonight, the temperature is expected to drop into record-low territory, possibly reaching the negative twenties! In fact, we won't be seeing anything above zero for the next four to five days!" He was smiling when he said this but none of the Watson family thought it was funny. We all looked over at Dad. He just shook his head and pulled the blanket over his eyes.
Then the guy on the TV said, "Here's a little something we can use to brighten our spirits and give us some hope for the future: The temperature in Atlanta, Georgia is forecast to reach . . ." Dad coughed real loud and jumped off the couch to turn the TV off but we all heard the weatherman say, ". . . the mid-seventies!" The guy might as well have tied Dad to a tree and said, "Ready, aim, fire!"
"Atlanta!" Momma said. "That's a hundred and fifty miles from home!"
"Wilona . . . ," Dad said.
"I knew it," Momma said. "I knew I should have listened to Moses Henderson!"
"Who?" I asked.
Dad said, "Oh Lord, not that sorry story. You've got to let me tell about what happened with him."
Momma said, "There's not a whole lot to tell, just a story about a young girl who made a bad choice. But if you do tell it, make sure you get all the facts right."
We all huddled as close as we could get because we knew Dad was going to try to make us forget about being cold by cutting up. Me and Joey started smiling right away, and Byron tried to look cool and bored.
"Kids," Dad said, "I almost wasn't your father. You guys came real close to having a clown for a daddy named Hambone Henderson. . . ."
"Daniel Watson, you stop right there. You're the one who started that 'Hambone' nonsense. Before you started that everyone called him his Christian name, Moses. And he was a respectable boy too, he wasn't a clown at all."
"But the name stuck didn't it? Hambone Henderson. Me and your granddaddy called him that because the boy had a head shaped like a hambone, had more knots and bumps on his head than a dinosaur. So as you guys sit here giving me these dirty looks because it's a little chilly outside ask yourselves if you'd rather be a little cold or go through life being known as the Hambonettes."
Me and Joey cracked up, Byron kind of chuckled and Momma put her hand over her mouth. She did this whenever she was going to give a smile because she had a great big gap between her front teeth. If Momma thought something was funny, first you'd see her trying to keep her lips together to hide the gap, then, if the smile got to be too strong, you'd see the gap for a hot second before Momma's hand would come up to cover it, then she'd crack up too.
Laughing only encouraged Dad to cut up more, so when he saw the whole family thinking he was funny he really started putting on a show.
He stood up in front of the TV. "Yup, Hambone Henderson proposed to your mother around the same time I did. Fought dirty too, told your momma a pack of lies about me and when she didn't believe them he told her a pack of lies about Flint."
Dad started talking Southern-style, imitating this Hambone guy. "Wilona, I heard tell about the weather up that far north in Flint, Mitch-again, heard it's colder than inside an icebox. Seen a movie about it, think it was made in Flint. Movie called Nanook of the North. Yup, do believe for sure it was made in Flint. Uh-huh, Flint, Mitch-again."
"Folks there live in these things called igloos. According to what I seen in this here movie most folks in Flint is Chinese. Don't believe I seem nan one colored person in the whole dang city. You a 'Bama gal, don't believe you'd be too happy living in no igloo. Ain't got nothing against 'em, but don't believe you'd be too happy living 'mongst a whole slew of Chinese folks. Don't believe you'd like the food. Only thing them Chinese folks in that movie et was whales and seals. Don't believe you'd like no whale meat. Don't taste a lick like chicken. Don't taste like pork at all."
Momma pulled her hand away from her mouth. "Daniel Watson, you are one lying man! Only thing you said that was true was that being in Flint is like living in an igloo. I knew I should have listened to Moses. Maybe these babies mighta been born with lumpy heads but at least they'da had warm lumpy heads!
"You know Birmingham is a good place, and I don't mean the weather either. The life is slower, the people are friendlier--"
"Oh yeah," Dad interrupted, "they're a laugh a minute down there. Let's see, where was that 'Coloreds Only' bathroom downtown?"
"Daniel, you know what I mean, things aren't perfect but people are more honest about the way they feel"--she took her mean eyes off Dad and put them on Byron--"and folks there do know how to respect their parents."
Byron rolled his eyes like he didn't care. All he did was tuck the blanket farther into the couch's cushion.
Dad didn't like the direction the conversation was going so he called the landlord for the hundredth time. The phone was still busy.
"That snake in the grass has got his phone off the hook. Well, it's going to be too cold to stay here tonight, let me call Cydney. She just had that new furnace put in, maybe we can spend the night there." Aunt Cydney was kind of mean but her house was always warm so we kept our fingers crossed that she was home.
Everyone, even Byron, cheered when Dad got Aunt Cydney and she told us to hurry over before we froze to death.
Dad went out to try and get the Brown Bomber started. That was what we called our car. It was a 1948 Plymouth that was dull brown and real big, Byron said it was turd brown. Uncle Bud gave it to Dad when it was thirteen years old and we'd had it for two years. Me and Dad took real good care of it but some of the time it didn't like to start up in the winter.
After five minutes Dad came back in huffing and puffing and slapping his arms across his chest.
"Well, it was touch and go for a while, but the Great Brown One pulled through again!" Everyone cheered, but me and Byron quit cheering and started frowning right away. By the way Dad smiled at us we knew what was coming next. Dad pulled two ice scrapers out of his pocket and said, "O.K., boys, let's get out there and knock those windows out."
We moaned and groaned and put some more coats on and went outside to scrape the car's windows. I could tell by the way he was pouting that Byron was going to try and get out of doing his share of he work.
"I'm not going to do your part, Byron, you'd better do it and I'm not playing either."
"Shut up, punk."
I went over to the Brown Bomber's passenger side and started hacking away at the scab of ice that was all over the windows. I finished Momma's window and took a break. Scraping ice off of windows when it's that cold can kill you!
I didn't hear any sound coming from the other side of the car so I yelled out, "I'm serious, Byron, I'm not doing that side too, and I'm only going to do half the windshield, I don't care what you do to me." The windshield on the Bomber wasn't like the new 1963 cars, it had a big bar running down the middle of it, dividing it in half.
"Shut your stupid mouth, I got something more important to do right now."
I peeked around the back of the car to see what By was up to. The only thing he'd scraped off was the outside mirror and he was bending down to look at himself in it. He saw me and said, "You know what, square? I must be adopted, there just ain't no way two folks as ugly as your momma and daddy coulda give birth to someone as sharp as me!"
He was running his hands over his head like he was brushing his hair.
I said, "Forget you," and went back over to the other side of the car to finish the back window. I had half of the ice off when I had to stop again and catch my breath. I heard Byron mumble my name.
I said, "You think I'm stupid? It's not going to work this time." He mumbled my name again. It sounded like his mouth was full of something. I knew this was a trick, I knew this was going to be How to Survive a Blizzard, Part Two.
How to Survive a Blizzard, Part One had been last night when I was outside playing in the snow and Byron and his running buddy, Buphead, came walking by. Buphead has officially been a juvenile delinquent even longer than Byron.
"Say, kid," By had said, "you wanna learn somethin' that might save your stupid life one day?"
I should have known better, but I was bored and I think maybe the cold weather was making my brain slow, so I said, "What's that?"
"We gonna teach you how to survive a blizzard."
Byron put his hands in front of his face and said "This is the most important thing to remember, O.K.?"
"Well, first we gotta show you what it feels like to be trapped in a blizzard. You ready?" He whispered something to Buphead and they both laughed.
I should have known that the only reason Buphead and By would want to play with me was to do something mean.
"O.K.," By said, "first thing you gotta worry about is high winds."
Byron and Buphead each grabbed one of my arms and one of my legs and swung me between them going, "Woo, blizzard warnings! Blizzard warnings! Wooo! Take cover!"
Buphead counted to three and on the third swing they let me go in the air. I landed headfirst in a snowbank.
But that was O.K. because I had on three coats, two sweaters, a T-shirt, three pairs of pants and four socks along with a scarf, a hat and a hood. These guys couldn't have hurt me if they'd thrown me off the Empire State Building!'
After I climbed out of the snowbank they started laughing and so did I.
"Cool, Baby Bruh," By said, "you passed that part of the test with a B-plus, what you think, Buphead?"
Buphead said, "Yeah, I'd give the little punk a A."
They whispered some more and started laughing again.
"O.K.," By said, "second thing you gotta learn is how to keep your balance in a high wind. You gotta be good at this so you don't get blowed into no polar bear dens."
They put me in between them and started making me spin round and round, it seemed like they spun me for about half an hour. When slob started flying out of my mouth they let me stop and I wobbled around for a while before they pushed me back in the same snow-bank.
When everything stopped going in circles I got up and we all laughed again.
They whispered some more and then By said, "What you think, Buphead? He kept his balance a good long time, I'm gonna give him a A-minus."
"I ain't as hard a grader as you, I'ma give the little punk a double A-minus."
"O.K., Kenny now the last part of Surviving a Blizzard, you ready?"
"You passed the wind test and did real good on the balance test but now we gotta see if you ready to graduate. You remember what we told you was the most important part about survivin'?"
"O.K., here we go. Buphead, tell him 'bout the final exam."