Which is the proper response to a written invitation? When introducing couples what name is given first, the gal’s or the dude’s? When does a man take his hat off, and why is he wearin’ one anyhow? What is the usual hour of the day to start passing the jug around at an informal wine-tasting party? Does shrimp cocktail call for this fork or that fork or some other goofy utensil you never heard of and wouldn’t recognize if the First Lady stabbed it into the back of your ******* hand?
Jamalee had acquired a great thick dilapidated and somewhat dampened book of manners, and the book smelled like a cotton picker’s hatband. She spotted lessons in that volume and tossed them before us, and we three snuffled after the kernel of meaning. The main idea was that we should each of shed the skin that limited us, the social costumery we wore that communicated our low-life heritage at a glance, and adopt a new carriage and a routine of manners and that air of natural-born worthiness that the naturally born worthy displayed.
“We weren’t raised with decent values,” she said. “We’ll have to memorize some on our own.”
Jamalee needed to borrow a desert of hot sand and scour it through our skulls so we could start over with scrubbed-clean skulls and build uncrippled brains to stock anew with useful thoughts and habits and intentions.
This process went on over a span of days.
Jamalee would bow her tomato head, dive into the warped pages of that book, then trot out more protocol you couldn’t imagine ever needing to know. She was teachy around many themes: learn this, taste this, become that different thing. She wanted us to become “civilized,” which I think to her meant to ape the quality folks right down to spittin’ at our own shadows.
Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell