Speaking Spanish – Hester L. Furey

Hester L. Furey

It’s a code, an inside joke, a redneck poem. These two words slipped casually into the conversation used to bring my whole family down, laughing helplessly with tears in their eyes. My mother coined this piece of shorthand in her careless, off-hand way one evening while telling a story of horrific violence for the amusement of guests. She said, as though it had just occurred to her, “And honey, before you knew it, they were speakin’ Spanish.” Later as it gained popularity, the phrase came to be used thus: “All right now, Billybob, lessus settle down. We cain’t have you in heah speakin’ Spanish.” That’s the etymological origin; here’s the sociological one.

Mavis and Kendall had met as swinging neighbors in the mid-sixties. Eventually they exchanged spouses for good. They got their exes to take the children, and they got the best house. At night the house loomed like a ship washed inland. Atop a hill, a multitude of little windows lit all the way up to ceilings inordinately, staggeringly high. Inside very modern, black tile floors, Japanese furniture.

Mavis and my mother had become instant friends after fighting each other at the Elks club. Don’t ask me — Southerners often resolve territorial aggression by making fierce allegiances in a sort of Marshall Plan of interpersonal relations. Honestly, I think these were my first lessons in primate theory. Anyway, Mavis was placid, too easy to please, and Kendall made a game of seeing how much she would take before she would stalk him like a man-eating tiger, or worse. To this end, he would bait her and bait her, run her down, wear her down, and everybody drank more and more, watching for the inevitable familiar yet endlessly fascinating unfolding of events.

Sometimes when Kendall was feeling truly suicidal, he played this game with my mother. The first time, the first time, mind you — he came back — she laid his head open with a fifth bottle of Canadian Lord Calvert. He had to have about a dozen stitches. I had fallen asleep in the living room, wanting to be near the grownups even though they had loud, unignorable conversations that caused my stomach to churn. I woke up just in time to witness the remarkable event. Since I was aware that my father had stabbed my mother less than a year before this because she jumped between him and another of the fellows she’d danced with too many times, I was needless to say a little shaken up. People say I have good nerves, but the truth is, they were damaged beyond repair at a very young age. I don’t have the stomach to be a redneck. But I very quickly saw that it was a sport. There were always rounds of visits after a fight — each side had to be visited and sympathized with, then laughed at. Everyone laughed and talked about it for months, doubling up as they made little gestures of reenactment. All parties involved were teased deferentially, lovingly. There would be more parties, and then the cycle would begin again. This is what it means to be an alpha. It’s not enough to win repute by merely biting someone’s nose off as a unique event. You have to be ready to step up to the plate and make a habit of outrageous and accelerated displays of aggression. Otherwise you’re worthless.

“You’re just a nothing,” Kendall would sneer. I know now that this is a Southerner’s way of calling a woman a whore. Mavis would ignore him, singing along with Freddie Fender (“I’ll be there before the next teardrop falls”), knowing not a word of Spanish. To her credit I witnessed few of these encounters. Usually it was 3 or later in the morning, only after hours of taunts, gouges, insinuations, and vulgar outright slams like the one above that he finally got on her last nerve. Crashes and screaming resounded in the other room, and then Mama would yank me up from wherever I was sleeping, and we would drive in dark silence through the streets in her red Mustang, a surreal counterpoint to the frenzied scene we had temporarily left.

It almost always ended like this. Eventually, having run through a catalog of her extended failings, he lit upon her ignorance of Spanish and her lack of musical talent. It was amazing that she would allow him to insult her so thoroughly, on every count, and that the tide would be turned simply by his act of beginning to sing along mockingly. Then crates full of empty coke bottles would take flight. Iron spiders also leaped up into the air. Very quickly the walls of the magnificent house became pocked. They began to have a problem with insects because of all the drinks that were thrown or knocked onto the floor. Liquor and soda seeped stickily into the foundation of the house. Mavis and Kendall fought their way from one end of the house to the other, windows were broken, doors came off hinges, no good furniture was left. All this had come of speaking Spanish.

Years later I drove by and was amazed to see the house still standing. They lived together until she died of an aneurysm. He must have had to sell it for a song.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply