Study Guide

Cousin Lymon in Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories

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Cousin Lymon

We'll never be absolutely sure whether this hunchback is "twelve years old, still a child," (Ballad.207) or "well past forty." We'll also never know if he's actually related to Miss Amelia, or if he heard her name somewhere and saw a meal ticket. (Imagine an alternative conspiracy theory where Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy have been in cahoots the whole time!)

There are a lot of uncertainties about Lymon Willis's origins… and even more about his role in Ballad's tragic love triangle.

The Sickly Child In Search of T.L.C.

If anyone needs tender loving care, it's Lymon. It's one theory that he's just a young man with several physical infirmities, who finds sweet love and care in the mannish bosom of Miss Amelia, who warms his whiskey and each night rubs his possibly tubercular chest "with pot liquor to give him strength" (Ballad.77). (If you're not a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, you'd be excused for not knowing what pot liquor, or potlikker, is!)

The hunchback's willingness to have such care taken of his bent little body seems to show a kind of vulnerability Miss Amelia seems happy to attend to.

No matter who this little guy is, it's clear, he's a taker, not a giver. The one thing he gives is his bed… to Marvin Macy. Meanwhile Miss Amelia is stuck on the couch, even though it's "much too short for her, her feet lapped over the edges, and often she rolled off onto the floor" (Ballad.194). Cousin Lymon doesn't seem to notice.

The Professional Troublemaker & Manipulator

It's moments like watching Miss Amelia sleeping uncomfortably on the couch that may eat away at the natural sympathy for this character. From the start of Marvin Macy's appearance, it's as if he's under a spell, "possessed by an unnatural spirit." (Ballad.171) And that spirit is enough to drive this little gentleman to villainy.

At first, he has a wanderlust and glamorizes prison, to everyone's (especially Miss Amelia's) chagrin. In one of he and Miss Amelia's few page-recorded conversations, they talk about Marvin as Cousin Lymon sobs, saying how cool M.M. is for having been to Atlanta. Miss Amelia replies stoically, "Going to Atlanta does no credit to him" (Ballad.174). Lymon ain't convinced.

Remember: from the start, Cousin Lymon isn't quite on the up and up, telling tall tales about wrestling alligators. The narrator notes:

There were times when every word he said was nothing but lying and bragging. (Ballad.119)

So perhaps it's not that odd when Cousin Lymon falls under Marvin Macy's spell. After all:

It was a peculiar stare they exchanged between them, like the look of two criminals who recognize each other. (Ballad.151)

This is look is a taste of things to come, when Cousin Lymon will use all of Miss Amelia's confidences against her.

Miss Amelia and her love for Lymon may be an obvious mystery in the story, but there's something way fishier about how quickly and happily Cousin Lymon takes to a life of crime.

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