Leona Beasley: Backyard Follies
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I run at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, with support from the City of Sydney. This week – writer Leona Beasley.
I was born and raised in the southern United States, Atlanta, Georgia, to be precise. At the time, even though it was after the Civil Rights movement, Atlanta was highly segregated. Though it was segregated, in the communities I lived in, it was socioeconomically diverse, so there were people from teachers to doctors to janitors in the neighbourhood. My neighbourhood was a working-class neighbourhood with middle-class aspirations.
My mother ran a daycare centre at our home, my father worked the night shift as a plumber at the Atlanta Waterworks, and nearly everyone that lived in this community had a side hustle. My father’s side hustle was building doghouses. These doghouses at best were rickety. Today, one might consider the wood to be reclaimed but, quite frankly…
..it was junk. The only way that they stayed upright is because he used cement, and I always say, “A little hope and a promise.” These ragtag doghouses were made in the backyard until their owners came to retrieve them, so this is the background story to what I’m about to actually read that is adapted from my novel Something Better Than Home, Backyard Follies.
Karla and I were always careful to watch Daddy drive away. Listening for his rumbling truck to turn out the driveway and down the street before we entered the doghouses. Each newly built structure sat near Daddy’s prized tool shed. I imagined that Daddy thought he had a mafic field force that would keep us out. “Don’t y’all go down there yonder bothering my doghouses,” he said. “They off limits to you chillins!” “Yes, sir,” we answer.
At first, the doghouse game started off as us playing dolls. It quickly turned into a more intimate doctor-nurse game. “Where is the pain?” I ask. Karla pulls her shirt up and I place my fingers on her belly. “Kiss it,” she said. Then, I took her shirt off, I looked at Karla’s prepubescent body, same as mine, and I rubbed my hands over her bare breast. We kiss and I lay on top of her. We giggle and kiss some more.
In what felt like a moment in my memory, I could hear far away cries that tried hard to penetrate my ears. Still, we kept kissing. But the magic that held the space in the doghouse dissipated like ice on a hot Southern day, when the cries became clear. We fumbled to get our clothes on. “He’s coming! He’s coming! Get out of there!” I heard Needa, Karla’s sister, clearly now.
Then, I heard Daddy’s truck stop. His creaky door opened, then slammed shut. Needa was frantic outside the doghouse. “Hurry up!” Daddy spotted us as we exited. Now Karla, Needa, and I stood immobile outside the doghouse while Daddy scampered toward us like a Confederate soldier who’d lost his horse. My first impulse was to run away but I’d learned you get it sooner or later. And where would I go? Explaining was the best thing for me to do. Needa, without my logic, took off running and calling, “Miss Susie, Miss Susie, Mr. Amos is back! He got his belt off to whup Karla and Onnie!” The ten or so children who had even better logic, they secured themselves on the back porch and hid behind rocking chairs.
“Now what you chillins doing in that doghouse?” Daddy said without sweating from the heat, then looped the belt and held it loose in both hands. He snap-popped it for both sound effect and fear. “Daddy, we weren’t doing nothing! We just wanted to look inside,” I said. I erected my head and shoulders like I was a soldier and held firm to my story. “Yeah, Mr. Amos, Miss Susie said we could go inside and look,” Karla said, singsongy. Daddy stood, shirt untucked, belt off, and his britches contemplating a fall with each false move. His lean body possessed no butt to speak of. His horn-rimmed glasses rested forward on his sizable nose, which seemed to smell blood, and so could mine.
The first lash across my back landed on my butt. I covered my mouth and muffled my cry. He swirled the belt around, and it landed across Karla’s leg. She screamed like a siren. Then he masterfully repeated the manoeuvre in one big swish. “I won’t do it again!” I shouted. I repeated, hoping to get fewer licks. Daddy wove Karla and my hands together as one and held tight so we couldn’t get away. Mama appeared on the porch and looked quickly across the cloud of red dust. “Amos! What’chu doing to those girls?” Moving as fast as she could with Needa on her side, other children accompanying Mama with enough distance to run if Daddy came their way.
“Susie, I done told ’em, time and time again, not to get in those doghouses. I ain’t gonna have chillin not listening to me,” Daddy said firmly. “Amos, let the girls go, they won’t run.” Mama stood defiant and at ease, like she’d take Daddy if she had to. Needa looked up at Mama. “Miss Susie, how Mr. Amos know they were playing the kissing-doctor game?”
*Audience “Aww” in unison*
She asked with an innocence that could kill. I looked at Needa without a blink, and then I looked at Karla who had put her hands over her eyes. Daddy looked puzzled. “What’s she talking ’bout, Susie?” Daddy asked, scrambling to grab our hands again, but we flapped our arms like fledglings, not wanting to be captured. “Wait, Amos, I don’t know. Needa baby, what do they do in the doghouse?” Needa looked at Karla and then at me, tilted her head, shrugged, and started to chirp, “Well, they…” At this point, silence was my best defence. “Quiet, Karla.” Hold up. Karla said, “Don’t! Shut up!” “Quiet, Karla.” “Go on, Needa. Tell me what they do in the doghouse,” Mama said. And if tigers and lions were loose in the backyard, it would not explain the fear I felt. Karla held her head low as Needa spoke like a prisoner newly released from solitary. “Umm. They kiss and touch like doctors and nurses…”
..Needa said while she held tight to Mama’s hand. “You brat, you brat! You kissed Onnie, too!” Karla said in hysterics. I thought she could have spared me my second count of the kissing-doctor felony.
Needa shrugged again but had nothing else to say. “See, Susie! I ain’t raising no nasty bull dagger.” Daddy lifted his belt, and Karla and I jumped behind Mama. “Amos, that’s enough beating. I told them they could play in that doghouse. I had no idea… Well, they’re just children. I’ll handle it,” Mama said decisively, then shot off another question. “Why’d you come back anyway?”
Daddy worked hard to put his belt on before his pants fell down, then answered, “I forgot a plumbing tool for work.” Then, Daddy huffed off to examine the doghouses, then said, pointing his finger, “I don’t care what you told ’em. I told ’em not to go in there, and it’ll be your fault if she turns up ruin, letting her run wild and committing unnatural acts and whatnot.” Mama scooted us inside the house, gave Daddy a final disarming look, and then trailed behind us. All I could think of on the way inside was bulls had horns and I did not.