‘Burn Down the Ground’ Excerpt
It doesn’t matter who my father was;
it matters who I remember he was.
– Anne Sexton
Thank you so much for the USA Today and for more money in Trust Fund. I wish you were rich so you can send more.
I am in solitary for 30 days. What I did was insult the interpreter Mrs. Heath. Called her “Bitch Whore” after we argued. Anyway I don’t care if I stay in cell, and I don’t have money for the Commissary anyway.
Will you visit me? Don’t forget to sneak a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit from the Free World. Prison rules say don’t dress sexy or short skirt. I bet you know how to do it right. Wear big, loose shirt for hiding a Dairy Queen hamburger.
Daddy is Theodore R. Crews, Jr., or Inmate #13A46B7 to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He lives in Huntsville—a city of thirty-five thousand located sixty-seven miles from Houston on Interstate 45 towards Dallas. It’s a nondescript Texas city, known for decent BBQ, Sam Houston State University, and Huntsville Prison—the former home of “Old Sparky,” a wooden electric chair handcrafted by inmates that was used to execute 361 men between 1924 and 1964.
The prison is a lot less ominous than I expected. Except for the barbed wire, it reminds me of a school. It is a large, drab institution devoid of any color but with armed guards instead of hall monitors and a warden instead of a principal.
I have never been to a prison before, so as I drive up to the gate my stomach is in knots. An overstuffed officer wearing cowboy boots, a ten-gallon hat and a white handlebar moustache approaches my car and rattles off orders in a thick Texan drawl.
“Pop the hood, open the trunk, and show me your I.D.”
I fumble with my wallet and hand him my driver’s license. He takes a glance and declares with a mischievous glint, “New York City? Get a rope!”
I let out a nervous laugh, but question his judgment. Is it really wise to joke about hangings at a prison famous for executions?
He must figure that a woman in high heels from New York City would not be hiding a jumbo pack of gum in the waistband of her neatly pressed Banana Republic slacks. When his metal detecting wand shrieks where the pack of gum is hidden, he dismisses it. “Don’t you worry, honey, it’s just your belt buckle.” I am not wearing a belt. Juicy Fruit, however, is wrapped in foil.
I venture into the visiting area, a large open room that resembles a cafeteria with vending machines along the wall. There are two long tables with prisoners lined up on one side and visitors on the other. This is the contact visiting area, available only to immediate family members of inmates. What you see on television, with thick glass separating inmates from their visitors is a non-contact visit. These are for convicts on restriction for misbehaving, or non-relatives.
Dad isn’t supposed to be allowed to see visitors here—he is serving a punishment of a year in segregation for striking a guard—but the warden is letting us have a contact visit because I traveled so far.
Always one for small talk, I am surprised at how friendly the guards are. I imagined they would be stoic with close-cropped hair and hands resting on their weapons.
They give me warm smiles and polite nods and say things like, “How’re you doing today, ma’am?” and “Sure is a beautiful day, isn’t it?” If I just look past their uniforms and guns, we could be anywhere.
I wonder if they know Dad. Will they treat me differently when they see whom I’m here to visit? Should I apologize to them in advance?
My father comes out of the caged holding area. I expect to see him wearing a fluorescent orange jumpsuit or bold prison stripes. Instead, he’s clad in all white, from the short-sleeved shirt over long johns down to his cotton pants and Chuck Taylors. He looks more like an orderly at a hospital than an attempted murderer.
My delight at seeing Dad quickly turns to shock. The last time I saw him he was perfectly fit, but now he is hunched over, slowly shuffling his feet.
Did he break something? Was he in another fight? Has he just aged? Has it been that long? Yes, it has been that long. Christmas 1997, nine years ago, when he spent the holidays with me and I bought him a VCR for that dilapidated trailer of his.
I glance away and try to pull myself together. I look back and flash the biggest smile I can muster. With extra enthusiasm, I wave “I Love You” in sign language. He weakly waves back but doesn’t answer, choosing instead to concentrate on his pained walk.
I have let Dad rot in here alone.
My eyes well up with tears when my father kicks up his heels and dances a jig. He signs, “Ha ha! See what could happen? You should visit me more! I’m an old man!”
I stand stunned for a second, my mouth literally falling open before I rouse myself to sign with big, sweeping gestures and a huge smile, “You J-E-R-K!” Dad gives me a hug—not a long one. A guard is standing close, hand ready at my father’s elbow, waiting to lead him to his designated chair across the long wooden table from me.
But the strongest steel bars can’t cage charisma. Dad resumes walking with his trademark strut—cockiness dripping from every pore.
There’s nothing to cry about. He is totally fine.
I maintain my composure and pretend like every woman spends Christmas sneaking Juicy Fruit to her father in prison.
I tugged on the belt loop of Mom’s skin-tight jeans, waiting for her to look down and acknowledge me. I wanted money to play Space Invaders in the bowling alley arcade, but she was concentrating on reading the lips of a balding deaf man who had two hooks for hands. Despite having no fingers, he tried to communicate with American Sign Language (ASL), scraping the curved metal claws against each other as if he were giving a Ginsu knife demonstration. My mother was an expert lip reader and kept her eyes focused on his mouth to make sense of the flurried flashes of metal, bobbing her head up and down to let him know that she understood.
I stared at the beige plastic attachments that encased each wrist and wondered how they stayed attached to his fleshy stubs. Did he take them off at night? Were they suction cups or drilled into his arms? I shuddered at the thought and watched how he made the hooks open and close.
Was he born that way or did he have an accident? After contemplating both scenarios, I decided it would be better if he were born without hands. That way he wouldn’t know the difference. I couldn’t imagine that the world would be so cruel to take the hands of a grown deaf man.
As I stared at his signing, his hooks brushed perilously close to my face causing me to reel back in fear. I had a brief horrifying image of running for my life being chased by him, with his grunts and wheezing breath hot on my neck. But Mom, who made fast friends with everyone she met, was perfectly at ease.
I yanked harder and smacked her round bottom. “MAAAAMMMMAA!!!”
“What?” Mom signed by waving her hand with the palm side up, exasperated at my persistence. “Can’t you see I’m talking?”
“Need quarter,” I signed back.
Mom could partially hear when she wore powerful hearing aids—one of which was always on the fritz, in need of a battery or screeching like brakes crying for new pads—but they were useless in the din of crashing bowling pins. For all practical purposes, she was as deaf as every other grown-up gathered in the dingy Tulsa bowling alley smelling of fried food, cigarettes and beer. They had traveled here from all parts of the country to compete in the 1978 National Deaf Bowling Tournament, where Mom was scheduled to defend her title as Women’s Singles Champion.
This event was the type of activity the Deaf community created so that members could co-mingle. In the days before the Internet and mobile gadgets, the best way for the Deaf to socialize was old fashioned face-to-face time through clubs, travel groups, cruises, and sporting events like fishing and bowling tournaments. While some fathers may have gravitated towards fishing and hunting, mine liked bowling because he could smoke, drink and carouse between rounds. Mom liked it because she was damned good, with a 164 average. Usually her winnings were enough to pay for our trips with a little profit to boot.
The Men’s National Deaf Bowling Association was founded in 1964, but the women’s singles had only been around for four years and Mom was already a force to be reckoned with. She loved to brag about how she was knocking down pins while knocked up with me. She’d bowled three days prior to my birth and was back in the alley three days later.
The wooden lanes and alley lights may as well have been the stage and footlights of Broadway. She was a star and I was proud to say she was my mother.
Mom answered my plea for a quarter by pantomiming empty front pockets and signing, “I’m out. Go ask your daddy.”
Without hesitation, I turned on my heels and skipped to the bowling alley lounge, where I found my father leaning against the pool table holding court amongst a small gathering of onlookers. He held a cold can of Coors Light and a lit Kool in one hand and was signing with his free hand.
“Two deaf people get married. The first week of living together they find it hard to talk in the bedroom after they turn off the lights.”
I caught Dad’s eye and he gave me a quick wink as he gave the ASL sign for “wait” by wiggling his slim fingers palm side up revealing the calluses from his years as a construction worker. Unlike my mother, Dad didn’t speak at all other than an occasional shout of a name or profanity aimed at a Dallas Cowboys game. When he did, his voice came out in an oddly high pitch with too much air behind it. He couldn’t read lips as well as Mom and didn’t move his mouth much when he signed.
I let him finish the joke that he didn’t bother censoring, even though I was nearby. I had watched him tell it at least a dozen times. As he signed, the ash on his cigarette grew longer.
“After several nights of misunderstandings, the wife comes up with a solution. ‘Honey, we need simple signals in the bedroom at night. If you want to have sex, just reach over and squeeze my breast once; and if you don’t want to have sex, squeeze it twice.’
The husband replies, ‘Great idea. If you want to have sex, pull my dick once. If you don’t want to have sex, pull it 150 times.’”
His audience erupted into a variety of loud grunts and squeals of laughter. One waved his hands, while another signed ASL letters, “H-A-H-A-H-A.” Dad chuckled at himself with a slight curl of his upper lip, making a dimple appear in his right cheek. He took a drag of his cigarette and the long, crooked ash finally broke off, landing on the worn, booze-stained carpet. A few flakes floated onto his dark blue jeans which he sent flying with one forceful burst of breath. He inspected his appearance and brushed off the remaining ashes before he asked, “What’s wrong?”
I signed back, “Need money.”
“Okay, but don’t waste,” he warned before making a big production out of retrieving his wallet and fishing through its contents. I’d always thought of my father like a deaf Elvis. Tall, muscular and handsome with dark hair combed back into a modern pompadour, he could charm the skin off a snake. His friends were caught in his magnetic spell and kept their eyes trained on our exchange. Dad seized the opportunity to remain in the spotlight. He grabbed my shoulder and whisked me around to face his fans.
“Do you know my daughter? Her name K-A-M-B-R-I.” In ASL, it is customary to introduce someone by first spelling out the name letter by letter followed up with a shorthand sign, a “Name Sign,” to refer to that person. A person’s Name Sign often uses the first letter of their name in ASL incorporated with the sign that indicates a physical or personal characteristic like a big smile or a goatee or, in my case, my temperament as a baby.
Dad signed each letter slowly so they had time to soak in my unusual name. He then drew a tear on each of his cheeks using the middle finger of the ASL letter “K” to show them the sign he and Mom had created for me.
“Why tears with a ‘K’? Because when she was a baby she never cried. No. Never. Always laugh, laugh, laugh.”
He patted my head and smiled. I looked back at the adult faces staring at me and forced my lips into a smile—not quite the hyena Dad was describing—as I waited for the money. As was always the case when I was introduced to deaf people, the first question was, “Hearing?”
Dad signed, “Yes, hearing.”
I sensed a twinge of disappointment in their expressions, a typical reaction when deaf friends learned I wasn’t one of them. I understand it now, but as a seven-year-old kid I found myself wishing I had been born deaf, too. Then I would belong to the tight knit Deaf community instead of being just an honorary member.
“Very smart,” Dad bragged. “Good girl. Nickname ‘Motor Mouth’.”
You know you talk a lot when your deaf family nicknames you Motor Mouth.
Dad passed me a crisp bill, and my eyes widened when I saw it was a five. Five bucks would get me an icy Dr. Pepper, greasy crinkle fries and plenty of games in the arcade.
“Share with your brother,” he signed with a warning raise of his brow.
Kyle could fend for himself. Besides, I reasoned, he was three and a half years older than me and better at most video games. One quarter lasted him a hell of a long time; surely he didn’t need any more money. After a quick thank you to Dad and half-assed wave to his friends, I left the dark, smoky hideaway and headed straight for the snack bar.
In the game room, I found Kyle dominating Space Invaders, as usual. He swayed and ducked, jerked the joystick and repeatedly bashed the fire button as a crowd of admiring onlookers grew around him. He must have been within reach of the machine’s High Score, a feat I’d witnessed him achieve once before.
“Totally rad!” A kid shouted, giving Kyle a slap on the back.
“Yeah, totally!” said another with a high five. My brother accepted the accolades from his minions who always flitted behind him with a smug smirk.
“That was so neat, man!”
A freckle-faced kid challenged, “Yeah, but can you reach the end?”
“Video games don’t end,” another kid stated with certainty.
“Oh yeah? Well then how far does it go?”
We weren’t totally sure. Each round became progressively harder so it was difficult imagining a game lasting forever. But if you were winning, why would a game just quit? Kyle seemed in line to be our exploratory leader, a 20th Century Christopher Columbus.
I smacked down a quarter on the glass screen with a crack, claiming my place as the next player in line and waited for him to lose.
“Go away,” he demanded. “You’re gonna fuck me up.”
Kyle was skinnier than a dried stick of spaghetti and, at ten years old, already as tall as many adults. Like me, his hair was as white as hotel sheets with skin browned from frolicking every day in the blazing South Texas heat without a drop of sunscreen. Kyle returned to concentrating on his game, so I ignored his command and lingered long enough to see him lose a turn.
“See!” he yelled as he gave a quick jab to my arm. “Look at what you made me do!”
I yelped in pain and poked the lump where he knuckle-punched me.
“I told you to go away,” he hissed. “Stop watching me.”
The End was apparently not in sight as long as I was present. Kyle’s cronies sneered at me. I was jeopardizing my brother’s attempt at immortality, so I retreated to the Pong machine. When I ran out of quarters, I sprinted back to the lanes where the hook-handed man was stepping up to bowl. He had replaced his right hook with a special contraption that gripped his bowling ball. As he charged down the alley, he used his left hook to whack some lever or button that sent his ball barreling toward the pins. I had no idea how many he knocked down or if his aim was any good. Did it matter? A deaf man with hooks for hands was bowling.
When the bowling was finished, my parents’ night was just getting warmed up. Every night out to a Deaf event ended the same way. My mom and dad stood gathered in a circle of deaf family and friends for what seemed like an eternity while I did absolutely nothing, waiting impatiently to go home. Drink after drink crossed the bar—more Coors Light for Dad, Seven & Sevens for Mom—as Deaf community gossip was dished with a flurry of hands.
Unlike other kids absorbing adult chatter, my “listening in” required eyes and dedicated attention. I was tired and desperately wanted to go, but getting a deaf person to leave any social engagement was harder than eating spaghetti with a knife.
Hoping my parents would notice, I made a dramatic production of pushing together three plastic chairs to serve as a makeshift bed. I draped Dad’s denim blazer over me and waited for them to call it a night. I almost wanted to walk up to the alley manager and tell him to flick on and off the lights, the best way of telling a group of deaf people it was closing time. Although I was too big to be carried around like a baby, when my father roused me, I pretended to be fast asleep. He scooped me up and carried me to the car. I buried my face in his neck and breathed in his trademark scent of Jovan musk and beer and nicotine. My parents, never extravagant with accommodations, unloaded us at a roadside motel for the night.
The next afternoon, a local news reporter arrived at the bowling alley to cover the final day of the tournament, creating a buzz. A slim strawberry blonde, my mother was easy on the eyes. For the first few years of her life, she could hear without the help of hearing aids. This meant she could speak more clearly than most of her hearing impaired peers, making her the unofficial ambassador to the hearing world. Naturally, the reporter chose to interview her.
Mom was scheduled to close the annual ceremony by performing several songs in ASL accompanied by a live band. More thrillingly, however, the concert was going to be shown on television.
There weren’t many occasions for Mom to get gussied up, so when the opportunity presented itself she went full glitz. Seeing her leave the motel room dressed in three inch heels and a shiny, short-sleeved maroon wrap dress that clung to her tan skin and showcased her enormous breasts, you’d have thought she was headed to New York’s Studio 54 instead of a rundown bowling alley. At thirty-one, she was in the prime of her life and the center of attention. She loved every minute of it.
The reporter chatted with my mother, who was standing near the band, two guitarists and a drummer, setting up their instruments at the far end of the establishment. The cameraman turned on the bright spotlight and with a quick toss of her head and flash of a smile, she was “on.” Before the reporter could even ask a question, Mom declared, “We are deaf not dumb.”
To this day, the phrase “deaf and dumb” is the most offensive insult to a deaf person. Mom wanted to make it clear that just because a person couldn’t hear didn’t mean they lacked intelligence.
I stood directly behind the cameraman and admired how proudly she stood, with both shoulders back. Even now, as a woman in her 60s, she carries herself with the same poise and grace at a wedding as at a backyard barbecue. She gestured to a table of merchandise like a TV game show model presenting an item up for bid. The table had items available for purchase, assorted t-shirts and handcrafted buttons proclaiming, “Deaf and dumb SMART.” They rested alongside an abundance of crocheted knick-knacks, jewelry, and assorted keepsakes decorated with hands in the shape of the ASL sign for “I love you”.
The reporter nodded politely. “You are performing a concert tonight. How can deaf people enjoy music?”
“Even though we can’t hear, we can feel the vibration.” She simultaneously signed as she spoke. “We dance to the beat of our own drummer.” She flashed a wide smile that revealed two rows of straight, white teeth, perfect except for a chip in the front from a childhood spill on a tricycle.
“Deaf people enjoy music. They just don’t hear the lyrics,” Mom explained. That’s where she came in.
My mother loved music and incorporated it into every aspect of her life. Deafness ran in her family. She was born to two profoundly deaf parents, and had a younger deaf sister named Carly and a few deaf aunts and uncles. By having some hearing ability, it was as if she was determined to hear enough music for all of them and listened to it with a junkie’s fervor. Anything would do. Hard rocking Led Zeppelin played alongside the kooky, light pop of Captain & Tennille.
Mom collected hundreds of vinyl records. She also subscribed to Billboard’s Top 100 and other music magazines that published lyrics so she could understand the words. Every Sunday afternoon, she piled a thick stack of 45s onto the hi-fi console turntable, the most impressive piece of furniture we ever owned, cranked the volume and cleaned house while singing to her favorite songs. Mom couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But it didn’t matter, our weekend ritual was so much fun with Mom vacuuming and Kyle and me sharing the dusting duties.
I plopped down cross-legged, front row and center, in the crowd that formed in a semi-circle around Mom and the band. I slapped my hand over my puffed up chest as they began to play the National Anthem.
I mouthed along with her signing as the song swelled to its triumphant end, majestically demonstrated by Mom’s sweeping movements, “ … and the home … of the … BRAVE!” I applauded wildly while the Deaf showed their approval by raising their arms and wiggling their fingers as if they were tickling God’s belly. No one could sign a song in ASL like Mom could.
Mom accepted the praise with a curtsy and thank you before she continued. “This next song is my favorite. It’s called ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac.” The music started and stirred within her. She grooved in place to the opening chords.
Now here you go again,
You say you want your freedom
Well who am I to keep you down…
Mom was flushed from the heat of the spotlight, the thrill of performing and the few cocktails she’d been drinking. Dad leaned against a wall in the back of the crowd, sipping a fresh Coor’s Light. He smiled with a slight smirk as his wife relished the limelight. I shared his thought: She was beautiful.
From where I sat, my mother was the envy of anyone in that stale Tulsa bowling alley. But truth was that this trip to Oklahoma should have been our last as a family. Dad had cheated on Mom again—this time on New Year’s Eve—and pretty much everyone there knew it except for Kyle and me. Fed up with his philandering, Mom was leaving him. She’d hastily packed everything we owned into a rented storage space and in the days before we set off for Tulsa, she checked us into an apartment in the bad part of Houston that charged by the week.
Kyle and I didn’t know the purpose of our trip to Tulsa. We were unaware that Mom was going to break the news to her parents about her plans to divorce Dad. By participating in the bowling tournament, she was also fulfilling her obligations to the Deaf community. She was the reigning women’s singles champion, after all.
My father was just along for the ride to see his friends and keep up appearances for Mom, though he had a hard time staying on the straight and narrow. He couldn’t help but party hard and flirt, assuring anyone who questioned his antics that he was going to be single soon.
“Christy left me,” he told one woman. “She wants a divorce,” he told another. He wasn’t lying, but his comments resulted in something Dad hadn’t anticipated: He had set the rumor mill swirling and several women approached Mom with the same blunt question: “Are you and Ted getting a divorce?” One thing Mom passed down to me was her disdain for the malicious gossip that seemed to infect their circle of friends in the Deaf community, as if there was some sort of perverse satisfaction in circulating the misery of another. Being married to my father made her hypersensitive to the damage that whispers could cause.
“Who told you that?” Mom defiantly responded.
“Ted,” they answered.
She confronted Dad with the gossip, “Why did they ask me that?”
“They’re jealous of you,” he signed. “They don’t want to see us together.”
“But they said you told them I left you.”
“No! They lie. They’re trying to break us up and cause problems.” My father could spin shit into gold. Once he told a lie, he committed to it, and with each re-telling it became his truth. He grabbed Mom by her waist and smothered her neck and cheeks with kisses smiling as he cooed in his softest voice, “I luh yooo, Chrisseee. I luh yooo.” There was his dimple again.
Some kids might have been embarrassed at seeing their parents be affectionate, but I never was. I loved watching them kiss and cuddle. I was too young to understand my father’s motives and see that he was playing upon Mom’s weakness: her determination to appear strong, in control and poised like the woman her fans adored. That night, her pride got in the way—she knew he was a cheater, but by staying with him she could prove the nay saying gossips wrong. So she took him back, on one condition.
Kambri Crews once lived with her deaf parents in a tin shed in Montgomery, Texas. She now owns and operates Ballyhoo Promotions and is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir “Burn Down the Ground” (Random House). A renowned storyteller and public speaker, she has performed on The Moth, Literary Death Match, and SXSW Comedy and given speeches at the University of Texas, Texas Book Festival, and DeafHope.