"Oleander"

a memoir by William Locke Hauser


In 1943, when America was in the middle of World War II and I was eleven years old, my father had settled my mother and me in New Orleans while he deployed overseas. Our home was next to the old Garden District, on Joseph Street halfway between St. Charles Avenue and Freret Street, and on Freret there was a streetcar line going down to the French Quarter. At the Joseph Street stop was a drugstore where you could buy an ice cream cone—vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry—for a nickel. The store also sold comic books, of which I was an avid consumer, and one day I bought—if memory serves, for fifteen cents—and later discarded after reading, a copy of the very first issue of “Captain Marvel,” the one in which Billy Batson discovers the magical powers of Shazam! Who could have imagined then that those pages of colored paper, if kept and preserved between layers of cellophane, would today be worth a small fortune?

But to my story. It was Saturday and I’d been down in the Quarter, browsing through old print shops, where I liked to flip through racks of colorful depictions of military uniforms and famous battles and exotic native costumes and grisly barbaric tortures, imagining what my father must be witnessing in North Africa and Italy. After dismounting at Joseph, I stopped in the drugstore. “May I have a chocolate, please?” I asked the proprietor, a skinny, chin-whiskered old man with a little black cap somehow affixed to his bald head, who wore a long black coat with white tassels showing from underneath, even in hot weather. I’d heard folks in our neighborhood say that he was a Jew who had come to America after escaping from the Nazis in Germany, and some used the expression “dirty Jew,” complaining that it was the Jews in Europe who’d provoked the war that our soldiers were now across the ocean fighting. I would never have used that expression because my mother had said my father was over there on behalf of those Jews. I figured that they must be pretty fine people if my father was risking his life for their sakes.

“Are you a good boy?” the proprietor asked as he handed the cone across the counter.

“Yessir,” I said. “I try to be.”

“Keep on being a good boy,” he said. “The world needs good boys.”

As I walked out of the store, I suddenly felt a need to pee. I had only three blocks farther to go to my house, but I was afraid of having an accident before making it there. One time, I recalled with shame, a friend at school had said something so funny that I laughed so hard that snot came out of my nose, and I wet my pants. Only a little, but still . . .

There was a vacant lot in the next block, filled mostly with grass and knee-high weeds but with a big oleander bush next to the sidewalk. I went behind that bush to where I surely couldn’t be seen, because the houses in back and on either side of the lot had tall wooden fences, and there, while juggling the dripping ice cream cone with one hand, I used the other to unbutton my short pants and pull out my willy. Ah, blessed relief! But then, looking through the top branches of that oleander, I saw on the other side of the street a house, and on the upper story of that house a window, and in the window an old lady looking out. I knew her. She was Miss Venable—known as “crabby old Venable”—who taught in my school.

Had she seen me? I dropped the cone, hurriedly buttoned my pants, and strolled nonchalantly back onto the sidewalk. I was nervously whistling, if memory serves, a popular tune that went “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambzy divey . . .” I walked fast and was home in five minutes, leaving the embarrassment behind.

My mother wasn’t there, being out on the coast as a volunteer watching for German submarines, and our housekeeper, whose name was Fleta Mae, fussed at me for being late. “I ain’t gonna fix you a good lunch if you gonna spoil your appetite with ice cream!” I feigned innocence, but she could see the evidence dribbled onto my shirt. The lunch was red beans and rice with bits of bacon chopped up in it, and it was so good that the memory lingers. Then I took a post-lunch nap, as I did every day at that age, including in my homeroom in school.

The next day, my mother being still involved with her coastal duty, Fleta Mae took me to her church, and I loved being oohed and ahhed over by the ladies with big hats. My mother told me afterward that I shouldn’t refer to them as “ladies,” because there was a distinction—she’d been raised as a Southerner and this was back in 1943, remember—between “white ladies” and “colored women.” She meant well, of course, but I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I refrained from saying so because it would embarrass her and make her cry. She cried easily at that time because she was worried about my father, who was just then stuck in someplace in Italy called Anzio, and the Germans were bombarding it with long-range guns and killing a lot of the American soldiers. I’m an old man now, and racial prejudice has lessened—or has it? Maybe it hasn’t because I still hear ugly-talk putting down “lazy blacks” and “dirty homos” and “terrorist hajjis” and “smartass liberals.”

And then it was Monday. My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Bastion, a tall, redhaired lady with a big hawkish nose. Some of the kids called her “Beaky Buzzard” after another popular comic-book character, but I never did, because my parents—and emphatically Fleta Mae—had told me to honor and respect teachers because they unselfishly helped make you a good person.

And now it was second period after lunch, the time Mrs. Bastion always set aside for “individual reading.” She had two shelves of books in a walk-in closet behind her desk, one shelf for 4th-graders like those in her homeroom, and a separate shelf of “advanced reading” for the 6th-graders to whom she taught English. You were allowed to walk into the closet one student at a time and choose a book, and then return to your desk—the usual kind with seat and writing surface connected together—and read silently. I was an avid reader, had been one, according to my mother, since I was three years old and pronounced the words on the cereal box while eating breakfast, and at four perused the headlines every evening in the Times-Picayune, and at five worked my way steadily through our twenty-volume set of The Book of Knowledge. So I found the 4th-grade selection boring. After all, who wants to read about “The Bobbsey Twins Go to the Seashore” when you could read “Tales of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table”?

But Mrs. Bastion held that “reading ahead is injurious to one’s progressive development,” so I had to resort to the subterfuge of taking a large-size/large-print Bobbsey Twins volume and concealing, say, a smaller Reptiles of the Southern Swamplands (illustrated, by a Georgia Tech Ph.D.) inside. That made for clumsy transport to my desk, but once I got there, I could prop up the barrier volume to hide the true object of my interest.

One day—this was about a week after I’d peed on the oleander—I got caught.

Mrs. Bastion made me stand in front of the class, while she explained—nicely, to give her credit—the logic of her rules. “If you don’t know the meaning of words, you won’t truly understand the story, and if you haven’t heard them used in an educated home or classroom, you might mispronounce them in your head and be stuck with mispronunciation for the rest of your life. Then people will think you uneducated and disrespect you, and you will not get ahead in the world.”