"We is doin' jus' fine."
"Are we doing a good volume of business?"
"We is doin' lots of business."
"But are we making any money?"
"But, how do you know? Give me an example."
After scratching his head for a bit, Claude said, "You takes my milk. I measures it out very careful and I serves five glasses from a bottle at fifteen cents a glass, and a bottle only costs us fifteen cents. And on that basis, Mr. Cliff, we is 'bliged to show a profit."
Roberts wrote that description—dialogue included—in 1976.
To understand many of Roberts's idiosyncrasies, one must look west, to the town of Morning Sun, Iowa, where in 1894 Rebecca Scott Key Roberts (a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key) gave birth to her second son, Clifford. Clifford's father, Charles, worked as a real estate salesman in various locations throughout the Midwest. While there were stories of drinking and other family vices, nothing dramatically unusual seemed afoot in the Roberts household. Then in 1913, 19-year-old Clifford, out on the road selling wholesale men's suits, got word that his mother had taken her own life. It was a tragic event that in hindsight offers a glimpse into Roberts's own mysterious psyche.
"The suicide of a parent more often than not suggests deeper problems in the family relationship," says clinical psychologist Wayne Wilson, who has counseled many children of suicidal parents. "There is usually a breakdown of what we consider the normal family structure, partly because the depressed parent is incapable of parenting. In these situations the child becomes the parent and, in effect, makes his or her own rules."