East Bay Grease, Eric Miles Williamson’s now classic first novel, has received worldwide acclaim as one of the great depictions of working-class America in the latter half of the 20th century. The story of T-Bird Murphy, born in the tumultuous 1960s and raised in the ghettoes of Oakland by his mother, who rides with the Hell’s Angels, his father, who is an ex-convict, and the father figures who range from musicians to construction workers, East Bay Grease is a novel of dignity, honor, and courage that has been compared to the works of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair.
Praise for EAST BAY GREASE:
“Williamson’s writing becomes transcendent. His prose cuts loose in torrid rhythms that evoke the peril and exuberance of jazz.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A confident debut, an arresting, often harrowing read.” —The London Times
|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
Read an Excerpt
I smelled dope. My mother had a ten-hosed hookah in the front room, and every night her and the Angels sat around getting stoned and drinking Oly's.
"T-Bird, get your little ass out here," she said. "I know you're awake."
I opened the door. The front room looked like the school's yearly haunted house, the black light purpling the fluorescent posters. About eight or nine dudes sat around the hookah, hoses in their mouths and hands.
"I want you to meet someone," she said.
She was sitting next to an old guy. He didn't have a beard like the other men, just a thick crust of stubble. The top of his head was half-bald.
"This is your uncle Ray," she said.
She gave him a stern look, as if she were going to slap him.
"So what," I said.
"Watch your mouth," she said.
She looked at Uncle Ray. "This is my son, T-Bird," she said.
He rolled the brass end of his hose slowly between his thumb and index finger, looking at me while my mother stared at him.
His eyes were silvery and pale, like mine, shining even in the dark room. I couldn't watch them. I looked around the room, at the other bikers, at the black light, at the candles, at my mother, then back to Uncle Ray's eyes. He kept staring at me.
"Come stand next to your uncle Ray," my mother said.
The floor was sticky, and when I walked across the room my feet smacked each time I peeled up a foot. Everyone was watching me.
"Now what?" I said.
"Just shut up and stand there," she said. She wet her hand and wiped it across my forehead, pulling my hair out of my eyes. "Stand up straight like a gentleman."
I stood there a long time. Everyone was looking at me except my mother she was looking at everyone else, sweeping her eyes across their faces as if she were waiting for one of them to confess to a crime. Finally she looked at me. "Now go back to bed," she said.
I went to my room and made like I was going to bed, but instead pressed my ear against the door.
"Well?" my mother said.
"Not a chance," Jimmy Flynn said.
"Nope," said Fat Fred. "No resemblance at all."
"Satisfied?" Uncle Ray said.
"Someone hand me a beer," my mother said.
The front room the next morning was filled with bright light. My mother loved burning candles, and little stubs of candles were stuck in beer bottles, in Spanada jugs, in a hollowed-out turtle shell, in teacup saucers, a hubcap, an abalone shell, in the woodwork of our grandfather clock, in the mouth of a human skull someone had given my mother as a gift. Smoke curled around in a white, rectangular shaft, stretching from the window to the other side of the room. Beneath the shaft of smoke-light were about fifteen of the bikers, heads propped up off the floor with blankets and leather jackets. The doorway out was blocked by Domer.
I weaved through the beer cans and bikers and stopped next to the door. I nudged Domer with my foot. He didn't move. I nudged him again.
He jolted awake and went for his hunting knife.
I screamed, "It's me! It's only me!"
Domer wrapped his hands around my chest, picked me up, and heaved me into the air.
Everything went slow-motion. It was like being in an airplane, sailing over everything, the hookah, the bikers, the coffee table. I smashed into the opposite wall headfirst.
Uncle Ray woke up when I hit the wall because I landed on top of him.
"What the fuck's going on?"
I put my arms over my face in case he hit me. "Domer threw me over here. It's not my fault."
Uncle Ray stood up and walked over to Domer, who was already asleep again, and kicked him in the stomach. Domer went for his knife, and Uncle Ray kicked his neck. Then Uncle Ray lifted Domer up by the armpits and slapped him twice. The backhand slap tore Domer's cheek.
"Don't you ever let me catch you fucking with the kid," Uncle Ray said.
He turned to me. "Come on."
He put his hand out. His huge silver ring was bloody from Domer's face.
I asked Uncle Ray to drop me off where the school bus was unloading the other kids. I climbed down from the bike and glanced over toward the bus. All the kids were looking at me. Stephano and Andrew got off the bus together.
"You're not my uncle," I said.
"Who are you, then?"
He didn't say anything.
"Who are you?" I said.
He looked at the kids staring at us. He pulled a cigarette from the pocket of his leather jacket and lit it and took a deep drag. He blew smoke from his nose. He said, "Stay out of Domer's way."
I nodded. "I know," I said.
The bell rang and all the kids started inside the school.
"Thanks for the ride," I said.
Uncle Ray cranked on the throttle and let out the clutch and pulled away, shifting through the gears. Teachers looked out of the classroom windows.
In class, Stephano said, "Boss bike."
"Who is he?" Stephano said.
"That's my uncle," I said. "My uncle Ray."
After school, Andrew said, "I want to see your house."
Andrew was my best friend, but no one at school knew it. I never talked to him at school because no one else liked him. Every day after school, the bus driver would stop the bus, get out, and hold up his Stop sign in the intersection, and when he did, my other friend, Stephano Kliranomos, and three or four other kids would beat up Andrew in the back of the bus. While they kicked and punched him, I always just sat in my seat and tried not to listen, wanting to help Andrew but not able to, hoping they wouldn't come after me.
"Why don't you just hit them back?" I said.
"I can't," Andrew said. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
"They do unto you every day," I said. "And they're going to keep on doing it until you hit them back."
"My parents said that if they find out I've hit someone they'll beat me until I can't ever hit anyone again. Why don't you help me?"
I noticed that my shoes were untied.
"Why don't you ever help?"
I didn't say anything. We both sat there quiet a long time.
"I don't want to go home," I told Andrew. "You really don't want to see my house. It's not that great an idea. Let's go to the fort instead."
It had taken us a year to dig the fort. After we dug the hole, we made a roof with corrugated tin, camouflaged it with dirt and leaves, and fitted rain gutters from U-shaped brick shingles, channeling the water away. We had plans to seal the dirt walls with plaster, then panel them. We had plans to run an extension cord from the house into the fort so we could have a lamp and a radio. We had plans to someday dig so many rooms that our fort would be the size of a house. Inside the fort it was quiet, and we couldn't hear the cars on the Nimitz Freeway backed up and trying to get out of Oakland and into San Francisco. We couldn't hear people screaming at each other out their apartment windows. If someone was getting beat up on the street, we couldn't hear it. When it rained, we listened to the water slide along the tin, and when it wasn't raining, sometimes we heard birds. It was as if we weren't even in Oakland.
"I want to see the motorcycles," Andrew said.
"Your parents forbid you to come to my house," I said. "You'll be in trouble if you get caught."
"They'll never find out," Andrew said.
"If you don't let me come to your house, I won't let you come to mine. No motorcycles, no fort."
I tried everything I could to talk Andrew out of it, but he wouldn't give in.
"If you don't take me to your house," Andrew said, "I'll let out Moses every time I think you're in the yard."
Moses was Andrew's parents' big black dog. Moses killed anything that moved mice, cats, and one time a junkie who'd hopped the fence.
"My place is your place," I said.
On the way to my house we stopped at Jack London Park, a concrete slab with a slimy green pond in the middle. Before he got thrown in jail for punching my mother, Pop used to bring my brothers and me to this park, and we'd feed popcorn to the pigeons. He beat up my mother because he found out that while he was at work, she was hopping the fence to the neighbors' yard. The neighbors were the Hell's Angels their headquarters was in the house behind ours. She was humping the Oakland chapter. My brothers had both been farmed out to foster homes, and I had to live with my mother. The last time I'd seen Pop was the night the astronauts landed on the moon. I missed the moon landing because my mother said I couldn't leave the table until I ate my liver. Every time I took a bite I gagged, so I just sat there staring at my food. But I didn't have to finish my liver, because Pop and my mother started yelling at each other, and my mother picked up a knife.
Pop slugged my mother three times.
"You can go to hell," he said. "And you can take your goddamn kid with you."
The only people in Jack London Park were old ladies and old men and some winos. One of the winos pulled a handful of crumbs from his pocket and sprinkled them around his feet. A pigeon fluttered down and began pecking at the pile of crumbs. The rest dropped off the telephone wires and surrounded the food, jabbing at each other's neck with their beaks, acting like no one had fed them in a long time.
We took the shortcut to my house, rather than crossing the bridge over the railroad tracks. We hopped the Cyclone fence that surrounded the graveyard. Keep Out signs dangled lamely from the fence. It was an old Indian graveyard, and no one had been buried there in a hundred years. Most of the markers were just chunks of splintered wood sticking up out of the ground. Cellophane wrappers blew around in little twisters, and the ground sparkled with broken glass like thousands of wrinkled stars.
One time, Stephano and his gang dragged Andrew into the graveyard and tied him up to a tombstone. It was a white tombstone, and it didn't have a name, just an etched cross and the dates 1888-1898. Andrew was ten years old like the dead person. Andrew screamed and screamed, but no one could hear him.
"Tell God to save you," Stephano said. "If he's so studly, tell him to untie the ropes."
"I'll forgive you," Andrew said. "And so will Jesus. Just please untie me."
"Admit that God's a phony," Stephano said.
Stephano kept trying to get Andrew to do it, but he wouldn't. So Stephano just left him there. Andrew was lucky that I saw the whole thing from across the railroad tracks, or he might have been tied up to that tombstone all night.
When we turned the corner, we saw the motorcycles lining the street, handlebars all tipped in the same direction. Some of the guys were working on their bikes in the yard. Beer bottles stood in rows on the railings of the porch, and cigarette and dope smoke chugged out the windows as if the house was on fire. The house we rented had a long gravel driveway and plum trees in the backyard. The yard was big enough to build a fort as good as Andrew's if I'd wanted to. Flies buzzed over the fallen plums that rotted in the dirt.
Then bottles started breaking in the house and everyone was yelling. A man crashed through the screen and tumbled down the steps of the porch and lay in the gravel bleeding from his ear. A peg-legged biker stood in the doorway and pointed his cane at the guy on the ground.
"Don't touch the peg," he said. "I told you not to touch the peg. You know not to touch the peg."
Andrew started backpedaling.
"No problem," I said. "Uncle Ray will take care of us."
When we got into the house, Fat Fred blocked us off and said, "T-Bird brought me a little boy for dinner!" He grabbed Andrew under the shoulders and lifted him up and pushed Andrew's head against the ceiling. Andrew was about to start crying when Fat Fred let him down, and Andrew bolted out the door.
"I was only playing," Fat Fred said.
Of all the Angels I knew, I liked Fat Fred best. He was so fat his butt went all the way back to his Harley's sissy-bar. Fat Fred always rode alone. His stringy blond beard looked like a straw broom. One time, my mother made a meat loaf and Fat Fred ate the whole thing. I used to poke him in the belly when he wasn't expecting it, and then he'd try to chase me down. He usually didn't catch me, but when he did, he always thought of some way of getting me back. One time, he tied me up alongside the hanging motorcycle frames in the garage and tickled me until I cried.
I ran down the street after Andrew, and a bike came up and rode onto the sidewalk and cut me off. It was Domer. He knocked down his kickstand.
"You see this?" He put a finger against his gashed cheek. "I said you see this you little fuck?"
He left his bike there on the sidewalk and dragged me back to the house, down the gravel driveway into the backyard.
He cupped his hands, and then he popped my ears and threw me down. I landed in the rotten plums. Domer was saying something to me, but I couldn't hear him. He stood me up and popped my ears again, and again he popped them. I got dizzy and fell down.
Domer turned me around, and he kicked my ass so hard I lifted into the air and fell on my face. I got right on out of there.
I ran down the railroad tracks behind the house toward the old Indian graveyard, heading toward Andrew's. When I got to the graveyard, I saw Stephano and an older kid, a sixth grader who always had detention for getting in fights. I couldn't hear them, but I saw them laughing. The ground began to rumble and I felt a train coming, but I couldn't hear a whistle or the clacking of its wheels. The spiraling light of the train whipped across the graveyard and then into my eyes and then across the tracks and against the warehouses on the other side, rippling across the bent-up and banged metal. I jumped the fence and tore my jacket on the barbed wire, and when I came down on the other side I started running toward Stephano and the sixth grader. Andrew was on the ground twisted into a knot, his legs pulled tight against his chest.
Stephano and the other kid opened their mouths and raised their fists into the air and I think they were cheering for me to help them beat on Andrew. I saw their mouths move but I couldn't hear them for the dull ache in my ears and the rumble of the train, and I wanted to rescue Andrew and not rescue Andrew, I wanted to pound Andrew and to save him, I wanted to beat his brains out on a tombstone and at the same time cut Stephano into pieces and feed him to Andrew's dog, Moses.
I stopped running when I got to Andrew, and the train was still passing and it was a very long train and Andrew was begging for me to help, his eyes watery and pleading for me to admit I was his friend. But instead of saving him I screamed, and I couldn't hear my scream but my ears popped and my throat went sore with pain, and I kicked Andrew and I kicked him again, and Stephano and the other kid laughed and kept laughing, and then I turned around to them and still I was screaming, and then I boiled over and swung my arm and smashed Stephano in the nose. He dropped to his knees, and when the old kid leaned down to help, I kicked his face. Andrew got up and started running, and then I started running too. I tried to catch up to Andrew, but he was scared of me and he ran faster than anyone has ever run.
I walked to Andrew's house and knocked. Andrew answered. He only opened the door just enough to get his eyeball in the crack. The door was chained.
He said something to me, but I couldn't hear him.
"Let's go out to the fort," I said.
He shook his head.
"The fort," I said.
He said something and softly shut the door. I went to the side of the house and started over the fence. When I got my head over the top, I saw Moses. He was tearing apart a bird, feathers hanging out of his mouth, pitching his head back and forth like he was going to twist his own head off. Moses ripped his head back and forth, feathers flying, parts of the bird dropping onto the dirt. Then Moses looked at me.
The windows of the apartments and houses were dark, and I knew it was late. I hoped my mother wasn't home when I got there.
A For Rent sign was stuck in the lawn. A dozen Harleys lined the driveway. I walked around back of the house and tried the bathroom window, but it was locked. In the backyard, I looked at the plum trees without plums, without leaves, networks of branches like giant cobwebs. Fog reflected streetlights down into Oakland.
The light came on in my mother's bedroom. Shadows of her and a man undressed each other through the curtains. They started hugging, kneeling on the bed.
I ducked down and started toward the window so they wouldn't see me. I knew if I got caught, I'd have hell to pay. My mother really knew how to punish, how to teach you about what to and what not to do. If she punished you for doing something wrong, you never got caught doing it again. One time she found a bunch of candles I'd stolen from the Bel-Air market. She made me bring them back to the store and make a full confession to the manager, then when we got home she poured boiling water on my hands so I'd remember not to steal. One time she caught me eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich between mealtimes, and just to show her friends she knew how to discipline me, she made me put my hand on the ironing board and she ironed it. "Think about this the next time you put your hand where it doesn't belong," she said. She heard me cussing once and made me eat two bars of Lava soap, and I wasn't allowed to spit any out. Another time, she caught me having a spit-fight with Stephano, and she put me in a corner with a tin pot and made me spit and spit until the pot was full, then made me drink the spit while all her boyfriends watched. Fat Fred said, "Aren't you being a little harsh?" and my mother told him, "If I don't teach the boy some manners he'll end up like all of you."
I slowly stood, until my eyes rose above the sill. I could see between the curtains. Their legs were knotted together. They lay on their sides, wiggling. The man stroked my mother's hair. It was Uncle Ray. His legs were thin and hairy. His shorts had holes in them.
He pushed my mother on her back and got on top of her. He bucked and bucked. My mother's legs were stiff, feet pointed at the ceiling.
I sank down to the ground and sat there for a while, and then I stood up and went to the garage and got the shovel.
I walked into the backyard and stood by the fence. The wind blew and the branches of the plum trees shook. The light went off in my mother's room.
The smell of the wet, rotting plums beneath my feet was sweet.
I jabbed the shovel at the ground. And man, I started digging.