BASS 2022: Kim Coleman Foote, “Man of the House” from Ecotone #30

A few years before “Man Of The House” came into existence, I started a fiction collection based on my family’s experience of the Great Migration, thinking I would feature women’s voices only. Then one day, while perusing an anthology of stories and struggling to connect with one about a man on the road, I saw my grandfather on I-95, driving to Florida to meet his uncle. Details of his trip or scant; I’d heard he talked about it often and that his sister couldn’t join him at the last minute, and I’d seen the Polaroid. And yet, I found myself urgently starting a story from his very male perspective, moments of toxic masculinity and all.

Kim Coleman Foote, BASS 2020 Contributor Note

I’ve noticed that when I struggle with a story, my tendency is to get overly concrete and analytical. That happened with the first story: I got fixated on contradictory details of the motorcycle accident. It happened with a story I read for my current reading group, where I kept trying to figure out how the black square was orbiting the earth, as if it were a science fiction story instead of magical realism and very, very emotional. So when I noticed myself picking out details of this story as if they were crucial to my reading, I knew I was doing it wrong.

It’s not that the details weren’t useful, or at least interesting, in the long run. The setting, for instance. I was puzzled by the place name Vauxhall, a name I associate with England, though this seemed to be a very American story. It turns out it’s set in Virginia, and there is no town named Vauxhall; I still don’t know what that name refers to, but it seems less important now that I’ve eliminated England from the equation.

In order to figure out the time that was the present of the story, I actually got out paper and pencil and used a calculator: if Jeb was eight years old in 1920, and is now sixty-one, it must be 1973. Except that the line that gave me his current age was ambiguous: “She had two years on him at sixty-three” could mean his sister Verna is now sixty-three and that makes him sixty-one, or it could be he is sixty-three and she is sixty-five, which would make it 1975. The difference is insignificant.

Then there are the Maxwell House bottles Verna asks Jeb about. I was around in 1973, as well as 1975, and I don’t remember Maxwell House coffee coming in bottles. Turns out, it has nothing to do with coffee, but with Jack Daniels whiskey; in 1971, in honor of the Maxwell House Hotel, the company produced a replica of the whiskey bottle originally designed in the 19th century for the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, TN – the place where Nathan Bedford Forrest was crowned (or whatever you call it) grand pooh-bah of the KKK, and where the first national KKK meeting was held. The coffee was named for the hotel. Makes you want to switch to Nescafe, doesn’t it. But I’m betting if you dig hard enough, Nescafe, developed in Switzerland just prior to WWII, has its own dark history. That’s the thing, isn’t it: to the dismay of anti-CRT school boards, racism is embedded in history.

But the point is, although little of this is of direct importance to the story, it was something concrete I could focus on while the story swirled by me. It’s background, and the story seems to be a great deal of background, which is probably why I struggled with it. It’s less about plot than about a period of time, one family’s experience with the Great Migration, when so many Black people left the South, some just ahead of a lynch mob, to head for what seemed like less racist territory in the North, and the aftereffects.

In his Introduction, Andrew Sean Greer looked at how the way Foote wrote the story reflects Jeb’s place in the history of his family, and the larger history of The Great Migration:

We are given the family first. And then his journey. Jeb is not himself aware of the history of the great migration; he is not even fully aware why he awakens one morning and drives south. But his choice of how to tell the story places him in the history of his family, and places the simple story against the complex and grief-stricken story of black migration at the beginning of the twentieth century. Foote paints this history in the background, which makes Jeb’s actions and struggles both his own and part of a legacy of hope and pain. It is a profound choice by Foote, one that makes for a powerful story.

Andrew Sean Greer, Introduction, BASS 2022

After reading Foote’s Contributor Note quoted above, I thought of the story, though fiction, as memoir, which helped me.

Her friends had been by before and seen the yard, along with everybody else in Vauxhall. And their mother never called it junk. She didn’t exactly offer compliments, but she once compared it to artwork in a museum she visited over in New York with the family she kept house for. But the man who created the work in the museum was white, and an artist at that. Jeb didn’t consider his things art. They were simply what people no longer wanted—what they thought was worthless. When he started working as a trash man, he was shocked at what people threw away. The broken chairs and rusted doorknobs, patched tires and dented pots, scrap metal and auto parts, used cans and bottles. So much of it could be mended and resurrected, unlike people when they die.

Jeb is a retired trash collector who has a massive collection of stuff he rescued from the trash. His mother recently died, and now his sister, as owner of the house, wants him to move his stuff out of the yard. He’s not happy about it, but does so, burying it in the woods since his girlfriend won’t let him keep it at her place where he lives.

His mother’s death, and his forced evacuation of stuff, starts him thinking about his Uncle Abe, who returned to the South after his brother, Jeb’s father, died in 1920. It takes a while for the story to get there, but Jeb heads down to find Abe, not an easy task since all he knows is the town. But, amidst a few racist interactions with white folks, a Black post office clerk recalls a guy named Abe and he heads over.

Again, I got all analytical about this, from a 2022 perspective. A post office clerk gives a random stranger someone’s address based on a first name? Jeb doesn’t seem to think this is unusual, and maybe for a very small town – population 316 – it isn’t that strange, but it seems terrifying to me. It might be the presence of an obnoxious white guy makes the clerk feel more bonded with Jeb, more willing to help him out. Jeb comments later about Southern hospitality, but that’s in connection to his uncle’s wife inviting him in so warmly, not the Post Office giving out addresses.

Jeb finds his uncle is past the point of coherence, so he can’t ask him any of the questions about why he’d go back to the South after having left. He does find out one of Verna’s stories is true: he left in the first place because he’d stolen some clothes off someone’s clothesline, and they were coming to get him for it. There’s a certain irony that Jeb can’t understand how someone would return to the South, even in the post-segregation era, a fairly recent development in 1971, when he’s quite aware of how he was denied advancement available to others in his job. I suppose there’s a difference between not getting promoted, being kept in poverty, and being murdered for whatever slight some white person decided to avenge.

Jeb had been planning to stay overnight, but decides to head back.

He grabbed his bag, heaved himself off the bed, then paused. A feeling of unsettlement came over him—the same as when he saw the bare yard on Waldorf. He was about to stuff the lumberjack shirt into his bag when he visualized Verna doing likewise with her baby-doll furniture, the ketchup bottle, his muh’s wedding ring. He fingered the soft red material, which had the slightest scent of aftershave, suddenly understanding why Verna stole. And he was no thief.
Remembering his camera, he tossed the shirt back onto the chair and dug through his bag. He told himself that as soon as he got back home, he would fabricate a story for Verna. He would say that their uncle never wrote because he had difficulty establishing himself in Florida, that he wanted no more visits because he was ill, and that he had a good woman looking after him. If Jeb told the truth, Verna might think he was hiding some historical detail their uncle had shared. She might try to come see him herself. Jeb wanted to spare her the disappointment. And who knew what she might try to pilfer?
He’d give Faye and his friends the real version, though, focusing on the heat and how hospitable everyone was, the red dirt, the lone bolls of cotton, and the overalls everywhere. A surge passed through him as he considered sharing the story of the trip with his children too. When they next visited, Faye wouldn’t have to prompt him to mention the latest trout he’d caught or the bears and deer he’d felled. Those stories made his children look like they were sleeping with their eyes open. Jeb even considered telling all of his children, whoever was willing to listen, about Uncle Abe. The man was, after all, their uncle too.

This is the third BASS story, and also the third one to deal with the relationship between story, memory, and history. Jeb’s collecting is the embodiment of memory. And now he’s ready to pass it on to his next generation. Foote’s story collection is also her way of passing on her family’s part in the history of the African diaspora. She has an additional story from Jeb’s childhood on The Rumpus website.

  *   *   *

  • This story can be read online at Ecotone.
  • Foote’s other story about Jeb, “Daddies and Sons,” can be read online at The Rumpus.
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic looks more closely at Jeb’s inability to let go of the past.

One response to “BASS 2022: Kim Coleman Foote, “Man of the House” from Ecotone #30

  1. My dislike of this is quite tangible. I started skimming and still read too much. Way too long and boring. It gets lost on the road to nowhere. It made it into this collection, so clearly I am in the minority, but I sure have very little use for it.

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