"What's the matter?" Kirkland says in a deep voice of mock threat. "You mink there's something strange about a 29-year-old bachelor who lives with his mom and dad?"
There will be residence changes in the future. "O.K., 30 is the cutoff point—I know that," Kirkland says. But why would he want to be anywhere else? The screen doors open and close, and brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews come and go, visitors all day long. Everyone else still lives in Lamar. Everything somehow is the same.
"I changed your diapers," his sister Sandra, 35, a teacher who's maybe a foot shorter and 150 pounds lighter, says for the 900th time. "Don't you forget it."
"We braided his hair," says another sister, Barbara, 40, also a teacher. "He had the nicest hair in the family as a baby. We were so sad when our father cut it that first time."
The father, Levern, is a tough little knot of a man. He runs a no-nonsense household that only in recent years has been relaxed a bit. ("You see all those little branches on those pine trees?" he says. "You get one of those down and use it. That's my philosophy of raising children.") Until his retirement last week, Levern was a custodian at Lamar High; he is still a barber on Friday nights and all day Saturday, and the pastor of the Lamar Church of God on Sunday. When he moves into a room, voices are lowered. Even the voice of the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.
"When I played in high school, I had to ask him every day if I could stay after school for practice," Levon says. "My brothers played before me. They had to ask too. I even had to ask if I could play the games. He always said yes, but we had to ask.
"I think he's missed one day of work. He was a truck driver for a long time and got laid off. The next day he got a job as a custodian. I think he must be the most respected custodian in history. Everyone would say, 'Hello, Mr. Kirkland. Yes, Mr. Kirkland. No, Mr. Kirkland.' I finally persuaded him to retire from that job. I was at the high school [recently], and he was cutting the lawn. I said, 'Hey, you're retiring on Tuesday, what are you doing?' He said the lawn needed to be cut. That's the way he is."
Levon's position in the family was unique. The rest of his brothers and sisters seemed to be linked together in small alliances through either age or gender. Levon was a late arrival. The brother closest to him in age, Albert, is five years older and joined the Army immediately after high school. His nearest sister, Angela, two years older, was—according to Levon—"too prissy." He always thought of himself as an only child. He developed the imagination of an only child.
"I played by myself in the front yard every day," he says. "I played football games against myself. I had a milk carton for a ball. I was the quarterback, the wide receiver, everybody. I'd throw the ball to myself. I'd straight-arm the trees. I'd tackle the trees! I announced the games. I called the penalties. I created two high schools—Jefferson High and Lincoln High—and they always played for the championship. J.J. Miller was the quarterback. Randy Jackson was the wide receiver. I'd be shouting about J.J. Miller and Randy Jackson, people and schools that didn't exist, and my sisters would look out the windows at me, trying to figure what I was doing. Isn't that right?"
"We thought he was crazy," Barbara says.