“Tony” is an original short story from Celine Aenlle-Rocha’s collection in progress, inspired by her own family history. Each story centers on a different descendent of a creole family from Louisiana and depicts how each member’s relationship to their Black identity shifts and transforms over time as the family migrates across the United States. In “Tony” an unnamed family member acts as the family historian. The interplay of the two voices, Tony’s and the narrator’s, reminds us how oral tradition holds a family’s legacy together even when physical and spiritual migrations have torn them apart.
As a child Tony spent summers in Opelousas, Louisiana, with his grandparents. There was cotton-picking until the sun began to set and then he was allowed to join the neighborhood boys and play their games.
Tony was eight years old and hadn’t remembered to stay in touch with his friends all year, but it didn’t mean he forgot. All winter he’d looked forward to the hot season when he’d gather with Alphonse and Pierre and shoot birds with handmade slingshots. They’d only used them to go after boat-tailed grackles and the like, and he never gave it a second thought until he was in the war in Korea. Face to face with men trying to kill him, he’d realize he already knew how to take a life.
Yes, when I asked him years later, Tony could still remember the boys, white-sleeved and brown-faced, cawing after the sky dwellers and propelling rock bullets towards them, almost turned into birds themselves. They screeched in disappointment when the crows got away and cheered magnanimously when they triumphed over them. They stood above the small, mangled bodies, four feet tall but powerful like those big white men wearing safari hats in old newspapers, the ones standing serious and mustached over their mighty, ruffled lion kills.
Alphonse was Tony’s first cousin and best friend, although they only saw each other in those golden Julys when Tony rode in his grandfather’s buggy down to the bayou. Alphonse was the darker one and would often call Tony “White Boy,” same as the rest of their cousins did, because at that age his hair was nearly blonde and white women found him cute. Tony didn’t like this, though. He found the white women strange even though they’d buy him sweets when he met them in town. My heart flutters with fear when I consider this strange truth; that had he ever been greeted by a friend, a relative, during one of these encounters, he may have been accused of passing in some sort of dishonest way; that he could have been accused of much more.
Tony was delivered by a midwife at home in 1928. Hermann Hospital in Houston was the only place they could’ve gotten his mother to in time. But that hospital only let white people into the world. So, he was born in a bed, the same as his friends because he was still a Negro like them.
White people were sharp to color in those days, and they looked for your nappy hair—even if it sat upon blue eyes and a thin nose—or your lips to check whether they were too full. Alma looked like a cross between a Negro and a Mexican, Tony said, so in her case, there was no fooling them.
“This summer, you can only call me Tony,” he told Alphonse on that first day back in Opelousas.
“You Texans. Where do you get off?” Alphonse laughed.
Mornings, Tony would eat cornbread and milk, his favorite breakfast, and then work in the fields alongside his grandfather. Louis believed a child was never too young for work. He was born in a different century than Tony, so Tony didn’t argue with him.
“I came to this country alone on a boat from Haiti when I was your age,” Louis told Tony as they grew more leathery together in the green fields. “I was out there so long; I saw the sun come up and down each day, just trying to keep my belly full.”
Tony shook his head and complained, “Aw, Grandpa, that was back when we was all slaves.” He was determined not to carry that on his back—after all, he was high yellow and didn’t have to—he was White Boy.
Grandpa Louis corrected his grammar immediately (“were slaves, boy”), told him gruffly he loved him (“your mother ain’t raising you straight”), and that if he wanted new shirts (“because dammit, you keep growing”), he’d better get back to picking cotton.
Alphonse didn’t have to pick cotton, but he did shuck corn during the day, and afterwards the two of them would grind it until their fingers began to bleed. Wrapped in tiny bandages, they would bring the dust over to Aunt Fanny’s house to watch her lift it into bread. Her face was the kindest Tony had ever seen, her eyes the bluest.
(As uncommon as it might seem for Negroes to have eyes that bright, decades later his grandson, my brother, would come out with sapphire spheres, and with skin even lighter than Tony’s. Creoles have a tendency towards paleness, or at least to that smallest degree which they can manage.)
Then Aunt Fanny would spin into shirts the cotton Tony picked, some to sell and some to keep, including a small one for Tony and one for Wee, his cousin. They were as beautiful as any white man’s, and after all, those were her customers.
As August approached the fields grew golden, the nights just a little shorter, and the humid rains came. Tony avoided the hints of autumn, begging his grandfather to let him stay just a little longer.
On August 31st, Tony’s mother would arrive in a wagon from the train station, looking somewhat out of place in her buttoned-up shirts, insisting on sitting on a cushion to avoid getting her bottom dirty. It was as if Alma hadn’t grown up in Opelousas herself, but she had, Louis would remind her. “You got some shine on you, but you’re still a Creole inside,” he’d tell her when she asked why the farmhouse still didn’t have an indoor bathroom, why they insisted on hauling each other to and from town in a horse-drawn buggy rather than buy a used car for cheap, which would be more practical.
Alma laughed when her mother, Louise, said wryly, “I don’t know how the horse would bear losing his position.” But Alma still called her parents Victorian as if it were an insult, though they couldn’t help being born when they were, though her mother couldn’t help being so white (although sometimes, when it was convenient to her, Alma would remind her she was just a little bit Mexican.)
“Go get your things,” she told Tony the next morning, after his last bowl of soggy cornbread. Then Alma loaded him into the wagon while he cried, despite Louis reminding him that men kept dry faces.
Tony and Alma made it with good time for the afternoon train, and by nine o’clock in the evening they arrived in Houston, where the air smelled different, and the houses were packed together tightly like sacks of corn flour.
The next nine months in the Third Ward were spent just waiting to go back to summer, even though Christmas came with all the gifts Tony wanted. He wanted to breathe grass in, even missed the cotton picking. It was worth it, to be away from the smoke and the soiled bus seats.
Back in Houston, where Tony’s real life returned, he wasn’t the same rustic farm kid. Fall through spring he was in school, and he didn’t have to work, at least not during those early years when his father was there with them. His family was part of the group of Creoles who owned the ship channel, and he came home every night with his shoes filled with salt, but his pockets filled with money too. They didn’t lack for nothing in those days, even though Wall Street fell the year after Tony’s birth. His parents even bought a house in the same year the younger Roosevelt was elected, and they moved out of the Negro boarding houses for good.
The other Negroes in the neighborhood resented them for Alma’s light skin and her job working in a grocery store owned by a white man. She was the only colored in Houston allowed to handle money which belonged to someone else.
The Greens lived in a thin house which went up three stories, and Tony had his own floor unless family was visiting. The house was coated in yellow paint but inside the walls were turquoise, and there were family photographs on the wall, and a large painting of a woman with light skin to whom Tony was related, though he wasn’t sure how—there were so many Guillorys, but each expected to be treated as close family. (Though I myself do not have the Guillory name, I have spent many an evening being lectured about why I do not call, not unless I am writing down one of these oral histories and need help remembering a past I haven’t lived.)
Tony’s parents’ bedroom was kept clean and neat by his mother, who laid out her wooden hairbrush every night after brushing the curls out of her thick black hair, then twisting it into a coil at the nape of her neck.
During the afternoons he was left alone in the house, so he ate grapes one by one from the icebox before he went out to play baseball with the boys, sometimes girls too if they weren’t too pretty. There was a white boy on the block who befriended him for their mutual business; he brought back comic books from his father’s service station to trade for Tony’s handmade model airplanes. Tony made the best model planes in the Third Ward, even at ten years old; everyone knew this.
His days in Houston were quiet, boring enough that he noticed his father drinking something foul every morning (a fifth of whiskey, Tony would tell me) before he walked out the door to work. His work grew worse and worse, not made better by the fact that most nights he crawled into his mistress’s bed in the Fourth Ward, or so they heard from their cousins with friends out there.
Tony’s mother worried he’d be sacked, and she complained once, twice, then a third time—and then never again, because he beat her so badly Tony thought he’d kill her. He could hear that thwack thwack thwack in between his mother’s whimpers and his father’s swigs of drink.
During one of the worst of these moments, when Tony was twelve, it got so bad he couldn’t bear it. He went outside, picked up a red brick and held it tight between his brown hands, wondering which part of his father’s head, when hit, would burst open, bleed, weaken his hold on Tony’s mother, kill him.
He brought it inside, faced his father, told him, “STOP,” and Anthony laughed at him, told him, “You best get out of here, boy,” and that was the end of that.
By 1937, his mother wasn’t buying him taffys and jellies anymore, and his summers in Opelousas became longer, and his grandparents told him to be grateful that they could still feed him during the worst of the Depression.
God give her credit, though, Alma clung to their privilege the way Tony did those summers in Opelousas. She never let Tony into the Fourth Ward, telling him the women there were dirty, the people were no good, they were rowdy, and you couldn’t walk half a block without someone trying to pick a fight and take your wallet. She said they were better than that, no matter how bad it got.
One time, he ventured in without telling her, when he was thirteen years old, during the last of those horrible years our country bore with no money at home and a war abroad. He wasn’t trying to fight nobody, and yet men sprouted from the alleys while he walked, said, “Come, high yellow boy, you must have some money for me.”
The reason he went in was that he was looking for his father, because this time Anthony hadn’t been home in three weeks. A cashier at the grocery store told Tony he was living with a woman on Victor Street. This woman, this mistress, was always doped up, Tony told me, like so many people in that neighborhood then, in a century where growing up female in the Fourth Ward meant you’d be pregnant or a night walker by fourteen.
It wasn’t unusual in those days for colored men to go away now and then for a spell, to spend time with their women and feed their bastard children. Tony pitied his mother anyway, though she knew she didn’t miss the bruises, wouldn’t miss her husband at all in fact if not for her always worrying about money.
But this time, it had been longer than usual, and the bills weren’t being paid. Tony took the dirty crosstown bus to Victor Street and asked the dark-skinned woman who answered the door where his father was.
“How’d you get here?” she asked him. She let him inside and he stood awkwardly in the doorway, staring at the beaded crucifixes on the wall. She wasn’t at all what he’d imagined his father’s mistress to be. She wasn’t a prettier version of Alma at all, but instead larger and with a square face. She didn’t dress like his mother did, either, but wore trousers and workman’s shoes. And she was clearly in the family way.
The windows of this woman’s apartment didn’t let in much light, but Tony could also see that she kept her house neat. There were two cups of coffee on the round blue table between the kitchen and the sitting room.
“I took the bus, ma’am,” Tony told her when she came back. “My name is Michael Anthony Green and I’m looking for my father.”
And then the man he’d been looking for lumbered down the stairs, and Tony could tell he was furious; that someday, when his father finally came home, Tony would get the stick.
“Go home, Tony,” Anthony snapped.
“Mama can’t pay the bills, sir.”
Anthony shook his head, laughed, said something about how that woman was the devil of his world, but he went into the kitchen and came back a moment later with some bills, told him, “Brat, if you ever tell your mother where I am, or come back here yourself, I’ll let you both starve.”
As the war went on and Tony grew old enough to work, he knew that because he was still too young to fight and the country would lose all its men, he would have to spend evenings at the grindstone to keep him and his mother afloat.
Soon after that day in the Fourth Ward, Tony’s father went away for one of the longest times yet. Two months went by, and they didn’t see him, and Tony went out looking for work. He was in high school at St. Nicholas Academy at that time, which they’d once had no trouble paying for back before his father sank into his drink and his liver, and brought hungry, infant Creoles into Houston’s poverty.
One of the nuns at school told him they needed a janitor and though he was only fourteen, that’s what he became. Every night after class he stayed in the classrooms, alone, finishing his assignments, and then he changed his clothes and picked up a broom. He swept the floors at night, with barely any light to feed his eyes, alongside a couple other boys who were too dark to get jobs in the First and Second Ward supermarkets.
The school was mostly Negro—most of them were Tony’s distant cousins, actually, on his father’s side—but his face would burn up when the teachers would walk by him at the end of the day, pity in their eyes, wishing him an early night. It was almost as if because they weren’t white, because they were other Greens, cousins of cousins, that made it worse.
After a childhood of Christmas gifts and being White Boy, he fell with the rest of his kind back into poverty. The country was forced to turn its head towards its soldiers, but I don’t think much would’ve changed for our kind anyway.
Tony would play the radio to listen in on the destruction far off in French cities whose names he couldn’t pronounce. There were people of all colors dying there, while he chipped dry gum off of desks in a dusty Catholic schoolroom.
By the time he was sixteen he was chipping paint instead, off warm houses in the summer heat before he painted them fresh.
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Alma admitted, her face dark one July evening. They kept the lights off at home as much as possible to reduce the heat. Anthony was gone, again, his second family growing once more.
“It pays thirty cents more an hour than my cleaning job,” Tony reminded her. He felt himself growing defensive. “It’s not my fault I have such a deadbeat father.”
“Don’t talk about him that way. At least he leaves us be.” Alma shifted back and forth in her seat. It was like she couldn’t get settled. “We can find you something better,” she said. “I know someone who works at the country club in River Oaks. Let me ask. You might make even more than you do now.”
He did. Although he had to dress like a lawn jockey and stand for hours at a time, listening to white men curse when they missed hole after hole, Tony took home a dollar per hour. No matter the lost balls he ran after, prized possessions he couldn’t understand. He couldn’t help but love the game. One day, he was sure, all this money he saved would earn him his own spot at a country club.
If I told you he won this dream—one day, late into the century—would you believe me? Would you think it too sentimental, or too predictable? Even if he was still, long past my birth and until he reached his grave, just a little bit poor?
It was enough, for now, to imagine. Tony had always thought high school would be the best time of his life. In the picture shows, boys wore Letterman jackets, and there were good-looking blonde girls hanging about them. Instead, he spent it wondering if there would even be a world left for Negroes, for Americans at all, if the country would make it through.
If he was able to save up enough, he’d go to the pictures by himself, and spend five cents to stand for three hours in the balcony, the only place from which they’d let coloreds watch. He’d have to wait in line behind the sign reading “Color Admitted” and watch the white folks go inside first.
It would burn him up inside to watch Mexicans and Chinese go in with the white people—some of them were darker than him! Anyone was considered better than a Negro, someone next to him in line would remind him, "it don’t matter if they weren’t even born here."
The movies were still his best distraction during the war. He didn’t think he was going to be able to afford to go to college and he needed something in life to tell him: there is still a world, even just made up, where you can be happy.
Despite their growing poverty, his mother still had a connection to one of the premier colored psychologists in the United States, though nobody seems to remember his name now. Alma was able to get him to put in a word for Tony at the Houston College for Negroes, and Tony started with a scholarship in 1948 after two years of working as a caddy and a painter.
All Alma had left was her connections. She was gray-haired even though she was only forty-four.
“You need to take a break,” Tony told her.
“Oh, all Guillory women age early,” Alma said dismissively, but with a layer of resentment. “This is about you. You’re going to college. The first in the family.” The entirety of her thin frame was smiling.
Tony expected to feel swollen with pride, but he could only wonder about whether he’d drop out. Would it age his mother even more? It certainly wouldn’t bring Anthony back to take care of her. There would only be two disappointed parents at different ends of Houston.
Tony had never seen so many black men with “Doctor” and “Professor” before their names, all in one place. There were white teachers, too, but all the students looked like him. They had their own college nestled within the Third Ward, and he was there reading Alain Locke and interviewing servicemen for research.
Tony still didn’t much care for white people, but he took a job in 1950 driving a Jewish lady around on weekends so that his mother could let go of one her shifts. The lady’s name was Mrs. Lila Kisling and she didn’t require too much of him. She would run errands and visit her faceless nieces; she was terrified of being alone.
Tony would take her around to all her stops and while she did her business, he would sit in the car waiting, and for the most part he kept his damn mouth shut. But one night he was waiting hours and hours for her while she sat in a restaurant with one of her tired old friends. It was nearly midnight when she finally came out, and he knew he wouldn’t have time to study for his exam the next day if he was to get any rest at all.
(He didn’t bring his study materials with him because the first time he read while she dropped into a store, she came back out, said, “What on earth is the point of that, boy?” and he didn’t know what to do.)
Mrs. Kisling got in the car and apologized for the wait.
Tony gripped the wheel; the curved leather was hot beneath his hands. “You surprised I’m still here, ma’am?” he asked.
Mrs. Kisling said nothing for a moment. Then, “I never had a Negro talk to me like that.”
He’d already gone this far and so he said, without thinking first, “well, you haven’t met the New Negro. We don’t take that stuff anymore.” They were silent the rest of the way to her house, but he felt that burning fire in his chest. It hurt a little. And this is why I don’t like white people, he’d think. I cannot risk the fire spreading.
But the old woman didn’t treat him badly after that and even started tipping him, too. Looking back, he’d wonder if she realized that she was different too, and that she wasn’t much above him to some of those fanatical white folks (you know the ones).
Just one semester, only four months short of his graduation, Tony decided not to finish. He was itching all over to serve. He was old enough and he was tired of reading books. When he told his mother what he was going to do, Alma curled up on the couch and cried into a pillow. “I’m not going to Korea right away,” he said, to appease her. “There’s training, for a few months. We’re already two years into the war, I’m sure it won’t go on much longer.”
“You would’ve been the first to graduate,” Alma moaned. Tony sat on the edge of the couch. He did not write to his father.
Tony was sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California for training. He had never been to California before, and he couldn’t believe how integrated it was. It felt like heaven. At Camp Pendleton, if someone called you a slur, they’d be liable not to wake up in the morning, and you wouldn’t have any recourse.
Tony would take raisins from the mess hall and make wine with both white and colored Marines. They danced on tables and forgot to sleep.
Then they sent him to Korea, the coldest place he’d ever been. To pass the time he wrote letters to a woman he’d met in Los Angeles, the one he’d end up marrying. He suffered nightmares about the men he was killing, of their screams; seventy years later, he’d still dream of those dead men. He missed his mother, and he missed the Third Ward.
When he finally went back, after his tank was bombed and he was dragged out of there, he went back to tell his mother he was getting married to an Indian woman from Arkansas, that he was moving to Los Angeles to be with her, and that he didn’t know when he’d be back.
“Why don’t you bring her here?” Alma asked. “Your father brought me from Louisiana even though I didn’t want to leave Opelousas. Surely Connie will know to go where her husband tells her.”
“She probably would,” Tony said, but Alma, withered, knew to give in.
It would take five years, but eventually, in 1959, the year Tony’s father died, the year the last of my uncles was born, Alma left the house in the Third Ward. She had no more reason to stay. She would live in Los Angeles until she died thirty-four years later—the year I myself, first daughter to Tony’s first daughter, was born.
But she wouldn’t be able to bear to get rid of the house herself. Tony, truly grown up now, would have to come back to Third Ward one more time. The house was still yellow but faded to a rotten butter. It was emptied of furniture, even the Christmas gifts he’d squirreled away behind meaty floorboards.
There was no reason to keep the house. His children, most likely, would prefer to spend their summers elsewhere.