SO, I'VE BEEN DOING TIME at this company a little over X years, just a little longer than my co-worker (let’s call him… Eddie.) Eddie’s just over 30. He’s what some would call… royalty. Growing up on that fine line between The Backwoods and The Country, he’s a Queen trapped in a hillbilly’s body.
To cope with his lack, Eddie’s become what psychiatrists call a megalomaniac.
We just call him a liar.
Eddie also exercises what I call blind bigotry. Black, Asian, Mexican, gay, or straight, when he stereotypes, he doesn’t discriminate. Even without my embellishment, Eddie’s quite the character. But I tolerate him because it’s all part of the package—overbearing supervisors, whining clients, annoying co-workers. It’s a job. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 some-odd weeks a year, etc. It’s not in my best interest to create any extra stress.
If you can name a place at the most distant corner of the Earth—from Pisswater, Pennsylvania to the temples of Timbuktu—Miss Scarlet O’hara has been there, done it, and gotten the tee shirt. Not only does she have the tee shirt, but there’s a famous street there named for her Great Uncle’s Brother’s Cousin (who, in a different family tree, happens to be his sister) on his Mother's side.
And in that distant corner of the earth, there’s the fabulous best friend there named Nepali or Nefertoto [OR INSERT OTHER FUNKY SOUNDING ETHNIC NAME HERE] who stays in a mansion with grand Victorian columns (whether in a city or a jungle, whether in South Philly or the South Pacific) where they eat fresh shark and shrimp before going out for cocktails on the best friend’s yacht which, naturally, docks at the front door.
Same story, different places—road named after Eddie's family, Victorian columns, and everything. In hindsight, it's really quite pathetic. But pity doesn't make for good drama. What makes for good drama is this: I am Black and Eddie is White; and, in the world of these cubicles, that makes all the difference.
So, I am sitting in my cubicle, a corporate slave, minding my own business, blinking at the blinking cursor (that would be, doing my job) when, out of the blue Eddie asks, “Hey, Marvin. Your last name’s Heath, right?”
Now, Eddie’s had to e-mail me more times than I care to count over the past 4 years. Though his grammar and spelling are as broke-down as his trashy excuse for a childhood, they’re good enough to know my last name.
Plus, an Eddie question is never just a question. It’s a set up. So, I brace for the worst.
“Yeah, my last name is Heath.”
“Well, my cousin Dixie, Dixie Flagg [I wish I were kidding], is dating this new guy, Parker, Parker Heath. He's from The Heaths of south Georgia. Parker's got these beautiful blue eyes and this gorrrrrgeous, curly blonde hair. And Dixie's blonde... oh, they're gonna have such beautiful children! Anyway, Parker's family is really rich and lives down there near Columbus. Isn’t that where you said your people were from?”
“Yes,” I say, feeling suddenly nauseous.
“He's got a Mercedes for work, another Mercedes for the weekend, and another one that he just keeps parked in the garage. Anyway, these Heaths, they're big in textiles. I'm sure you've heard of them, haven't you?"
"Well, they’ve had money since, like, way before the Civil War. Anyway, Dixie was telling me about this really cool mill that Parker took her to last weekend. A mill that his family, the Heaths, still own.
“I don't know," Eddie's voice twanged like a poorly-tuned banjo, "but I wonder if you and him are related..."
Genealogy of the Byrd Family
My Mama maiden name is Byrd. Word is
da name came from my Great-Great-Great Granddaddy Junie
who useta catch da Holy Ghost in da cottonfields
spinnin’ round & spreadin’
his long black arms, wide like wings against da sky—
Dey say like dat eagle who teach da angels
how to fly.
But Big Mama Sadie say, Unh, unh.
Dat name come from Great-Great-Great-Great Auntie Boo
who useta lead da worksongs in da canefields
with an alto so high&sweet
she made da bluest hummingbirds dance
& da greenest cane lean down & weep rivers
of brown sugar.
But Big Uncle Toonkie say, Naw naw naw
Dat name come from Great-Great-Great Great-Great Grandpapa Adika
who on da ninety-ninth lash in da ricefield
finally fell to his knees before da overseer
turned east toward Africa (Glory)
sprouted wings like a sankofa* (Oh glory!)
rose toward freedom &jus
Good God Almighty!
Dat’s what dey say.
But da truth of da matter
is dat Byrd come to us from a Carolina slavemasta
who folk in England ran dis ol’ country inn
dat for generations came to be known da whole kingdomwide
for dey collection of exotic African birds
which never flew,
but which dey kept
* sankofa: a bird of Ghanian mythology whose
head faces the opposite direction of its body so
that, even as it advances, its eye is constantly
on its past. From Akan, translated literally:
One must return to the past to move forward.