Black Man

It was true that he lurked outside the A & P and true too that he stared.  When one glanced away from him, Russell had moved from his typical base – a shuffling path among the shopping carts just outside the electronic doors – to walking right alongside your car.  It was startling how he seemed to have teleported the distance.  Mom always locked the doors when we saw Russell in the parking lot.

“Some say he’s harmless,” she’d say. “But I don’t know…”

a-and-p

We were terrified of Russell Green.  A tall black man of indeterminate years, he was a fixture of our childhood.  At least on days when we went grocery shopping.  Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing he ever did in our presence to evoke our response to him. Except perhaps to be born black – something that in the south is a handicap and a risk in the eyes of many.

Mom once said she’d heard he was quite a scholar in his youth, but that he’d been roughed up by some boys (I always assumed they were white) and had taken a blow on the head. Her tone implied it was pitiable, but she still locked up the station wagon when she saw him.  I didn’t know what to do with his backstory when I was a kid, but in the years since I’ve colored it until he is almost a mythic martyr.  I imagine him as a slender youth, dressed in a cardigan, wearing smart glasses like Malcolm X.  The light glints off of the frames as he sits under a tree, writing an essay for school.  His mother is Oprah Winfrey and she nails it in a calico apron, a modern day queen sitting in makeup for three hours to give her the dry elbows of a hotel maid.

The truth is it is hard to imagine it differently for me.  My understanding of the black struggle has been spoon fed to me through the lens of too many white film makers. Perhaps the legend of Russell was partly true – that he was good in school.  But maybe he would have wanted to use those smarts to get a job at IBM and not to change the world in protest.  That would not occur to me because when white storytellers tell black lives, they talk about blacks who changed America via the remove of a dais and a microphone.

When I try to put the pieces together about Russell – and maybe it is fetishizing to even try or an exercise in lancing the boil of childhood’s racism – I come up short.  He was a black man and some said a mad man and he was a lurker and a looker, but more than that he was a stranger.  The fact that he spent his time skulking or loitering the parking lot of the grocery store gave him an unglamorous fame and because of that he sticks out in my memory.  To be fairer still, the A & P was in his neighborhood and he never bothered anyone, never hurled insults or begged favors.  He was just there.  In an odd way, showing up on the regular gave him name recognition, a perverse argument in favor of the marketing stratagem of consistent exposure.

Nowadays it might not happen so, if for no other reason than that the grocery store would be on the outskirts of town in a well-lit suburban haven on the other side of too many highways for the lost or the deranged of neighborhoods to wander upon.  The A & P of my childhood was on South Street, but all the white grownups I knew called that area Nigger Town. This because this short road of small stucco houses – being evermore bought up and leveled for strip malls and burger huts – was where black people lived.  It had no jurisdiction of its own, no real autonomy and independence from the mechanisms of a white establishment.  So while there was nothing to threaten the status quo on these three blocks except perhaps one mad man walking the rows of the parking lot, daring to stare at white families in their wood-paneled station wagons – it clearly needed a name to delineate it from the rest of town, to demarcate the differences between us and to levy upon the darker skinned a moniker meant to demean.

Then black artists took that same word and made it their own.  Still white people chafe not that it exists but that now it is wielded by black hands, spoken by black lips, linked to new cultural moorings by black ingenuity and will.  We hear the debate: why is it okay when they say it?  I will not speak for black people to answer; they have their own voice.  What little I can do is to peel back every ignorant thing I ever learned to expose and dismiss it, one remembrance at a time.

In the minds of my people, Russell was to be feared and to locked out, but it has become clear to me in my life that the real social menace was on the inside of the glass all along.

 

 

We

Saturday morning, station wagon.

Mom & Dad

The girls & me.

We are us.

And us is we.

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On the road to Winchester, the hills roller coaster.

The farms tilt up

And the farms tilt down.

Daddy hits the gas to make us soar

High we fly and low we fall.

Butterflies burst in our bellies.

Everyone says it together,

Big people and little ones:

Wee.

It is always sunny

On the road to Winchester.

Even when it is raining.

Even when mother’s eyes

Silver with sadness.

If Daddy makes butterflies.

We. Are. Happy.

Touch

Dirk started the truck and left it running, a growling sort of beast silencing the bird song.  Sitting on the edge of the porch, he pawed in his breast pocket for his smokes and lighter.  The flint needed to be replaced; it took a while to get a flame.  Squinting at the sun coming over the ridge, he let the first plume of smoke blossom darkly on the air.  The morning was only a little nippy, though the ground was still hard from cold.  He found a mark from his boot the day before in the bald grass and matched his foot to it for no particular reason.  His shoulders folded his chest as his body eased into a slump.

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The screen door opened behind him, the spring making queer music as it stretched full, and Eva said, “She’s almost ready.  Why you running that engine? It don’t need to warm up.”

“Yes, it does. Let me be, woman.”

“Fool,” she spat.  Then the music played in swift reverse as the spring drew up tight.  The door slapped the jam with a fearsome clatter that made Dirk jump, though he’d known it was coming.

“Cow,” he said.

Eva had been a simple, smiling kind of woman twenty years ago.  She was slight – weighed nothing in his arms – with a pretty round face and small, sparkling brown eyes.  When the light hit her eyes just so, like one day when they stood at the quarry, with rusty leaves falling all around them, there was a tiger gold lurking beneath the chestnut.  It maddened him a little how pretty she was back in those days.  And she seemed to like just everything about him, which naturally pleased him.

“You’re a snappy dresser,” she said the first time they really talked.  While they dated, she never failed to compliment some little detail of his clothes. Sometimes Eva reached out and stroked the lapel of his jacket or the patches on his sleeves.  She liked soft things to touch, dense velvet and tender suede, and though she was farm-raised like himself, she somehow had dainty white hands that he liked to see sliding along his tweeds.  In his memory, their courtship had a lot of quiet moments, with touches that were better than words.  Everything around them seemed to fall away when their eyes or fingertips met, so that one had to dig around in the mind later to recall where they’d been when one of those moments passed between them.

When the children came it seemed to bleed out every drop of honey.  He never knew a woman with a more hateful tongue.  They filled the silence with quarrels.  Her hands had changed, lumpy knuckled and reddened, and they never touched him anymore.  There were things in their house that bridged their hands, pot handles and door knobs, but they never held any lingering warmth to pass from one of them to the other.

The love of just a few years had been a tender sort of thing, the bead of nectar drawn from the honeysuckle.  One had to let the tongue take it quick before it dropped away.  After the babies, what remained was a tough hatred, dark and sticky as the sap of cedars, a bond that seemed a mistake, a mess that could not be cleaned up easily.

They didn’t have the words to figure out the change.  Words had never been their strength.  The ones that passed between them now were crude, clumsy weapons that hardly hurt anymore, they’d been wielded so often.  Wounds are ugly things, but hard to open again when they’ve leathered over good.

He drank too much, that was true, and she hated him most when his breath was all booze fumes and his hands and feet clumsy as colts.  Whiskey made him lusty with a gaze as cagey and dark as snake-eyes;  she never hated the sight of anything that much.  Sometimes she wished he was a snake, something she could kill easily with a garden hoe.

____________

They had three girls and no boys.  The first two came early, when there was still a little perfume of affection floating between them.  Back then they lived out at the old home place, where the front room looked out over Hog Back Mountain.  In the spring the ridge was covered in redbud, a lurid and romantic shade that made one want to disappear in the woods the whole of the day.  The slope below the barn dressed like a bride when all the laurel bloomed.  They had a dozen springs together on that hillside, each one less kind than the one before.

Later they built the house out on the dell, a sunny bit of land with smaller views.  He sold the home place, but about as much of the money went to whiskey over the coming years as it did to anything else.  It was a strange romance he had with the bottle, he was the first to admit, but it was like finding happiness again.  The heedless, proud stride of a young man seemed to come back to him when he walked in those rye clouds.

Eva liked the new house, a squat little bungalow with dormers that worried the sky, but she wished it didn’t sit so close to the road.  Dirk planted a row of hemlocks along the property line so she’d feel a little more tucked away.  Then over the years the trees grew swift and thick, blotting out the sunrises and leaving the front rooms dark all the day long.  Eva didn’t seem to mind.  She was queer about the sun harming their things and since it was her egg money that bought the parlor set, she happily suffered the gloom to preserve the red velvet.  Once he caught her pausing while cleaning house, running her fingertips over the fabric with a dreamy, far away look.  He wondered if she was remembering something he remembered, too.  When she noticed his gaze, her face closed up tight.

“Get out of here,” she said.

He left the house to the cry of the screen door, letting it slap the jam as hateful as it ever did.  He wasn’t a man for tears, but his eyes burned hot that afternoon.  He went to the shed to get his ax.  He meant to cut down the hemlocks, to let the sun come back into the house.  When he got there, he lost his furor.  His hand fell away from the worn handle and instead he fished around behind coffee tins of nails and the parts of a busted kitchen chair, looking for a bottle he’d hidden there.  He didn’t come out of the shed for hours.

____________

The third girl was born in the bungalow, when the first two girls were already teenagers.  It was a wonder they made another child, as bitter as they were, but a jug of moonshine and moonshine on lilacs is a double sort of magic.  They met in a common loneliness one spring night.  Their hands remembered kinder days; their lips found how to kiss again.

The girl was a lovely little thing, the bonniest one of them all.  They named her Lenore because Eva had read it in a poem.  Running her fingers over the newborn’s fuzzy head, she said, “It’d be nice to have a girl with a pretty name for once.”

At the other end of the bed, her Betty and Madge exchanged glances and left the room stiffly.  Eva didn’t seem to notice or care.  She hardly liked the older girls anymore than she did their father.

Lenore’s eyes changed quickly to a brown as sweet as chocolate drops.  Dirk was smitten from the start.  He was older now, his hair gone to salt, and he had more hours to spend at home.  Eva said no one would hire him, since it was impossible to trust a rummy.

“You could still work a full week,” she said.  She had Lenore on one hip, the face a little sunflower in a ruffled bonnet, and she was flipping buckwheat cakes for breakfast.  The lard popped, a tiny hot bubble that landed on the babe’s hand, and the child cried, though it hardly left a mark.  Dirk took Lenore from Eva with a savage kind of furry stirring him.

“Don’t yank her out of my hands, you fool,” she said. “You almost knocked me into the stove. Is that what you wanted to do?”

“You ain’t gonna harm this child ever!”

Her mouth fell open in astonishment.  She laughed, “As if I would, you ass!”

“You ugly cow,” he said.  He crossed to the window so baby could look out into the sunshine.  Giving Eva a a long stare, he said with finality, “Just make sure you don’t.”

From that day on, he made Lenore his special pet.  He found a secret, wicked delight in treating Eva as if she wasn’t taking proper care of the little one.  And as he painted a wide circle around he and the child, it seemed Eva stood ever farther outside of it.  It wasn’t exactly his plan to do it, but somehow the more he loved Lenore, the less she seemed to belong to Eva.

In his shrinking world, he’d carved a universe of tenderness for himself and the last baby.  He wouldn’t suffer Eva to enter into it, to spoil it with her sharp tongue.  As if he’d cast a spell, she fell prey to his will in this one matter.  Only when he went away now and again for day work did she have time with her youngest, but she could find none of the sweet hopefulness she felt when she had stroked the peachy head the first time and given her, her name.

One afternoon she stood out at the clothesline, mindlessly hanging one thing after another.  When the basket was empty, she remembered that Lenore had been playing in it a moment before, and her eyes combed the grassy slope behind the house for the fat toddler.  There was no sign of her.  She called out twice, then again, her voice breaking.  All along the slope, she ran zig zag like a rabbit, hoping to find Lenore sitting in the grass that was left uncut last autumn and which the light winter had not bent.

“You’ll be all itches,” she called out. “That grass is gonna scratch those fat legs, girl.”

When Dirk got home, he was so furious he had no words – not even their poison favorites.  They combed the forest together in the waning light.  The older girls sat together on the porch, waiting in case Lenore came back, holding hands and wishing they could cry.  Between them, Dirk and Eva left their echos in every nook and cranny of the hollow.  They shared one word between them, passing it back and forth through the branches and the wild vines, until their cries were thin and ragged.

“Lenore! Lenore!”  In the distance, bloodhounds called back to them, a familiar cry that quickened their hearts and their pace.

The moon climbed high, so full and bright it pulled the yellow up out of the forsythia.  Finally, doubling back where they’d been time and again, Dirk spotted the little one lying in the sparkling creek water.  He bent to her, hands shaking as a chilling dread dried his throat. Her coldness told him they were too late.  When Eva came upon him a moment later, he was cradling the girl in his arms.  She gave a cry and reached out with gently curled fingers, but he struck her away.

“Don’t touch my child,” he said.

She was too shocked to argue with him.   He left her standing by the water, her hands clasped together at her stomach, her eyes pleading for something that the mouth wouldn’t ask.  Maybe she wanted to hold Lenore or maybe she just wanted there to be a kindness for just a moment now.  When he was out of her sight, she sank to her knees in the wet moss and she spoke the child’s name to the moon.  She said it again to the creek that had stolen her last breath and then she said it once more, tenderly, for only herself.

____________

Dirk was finishing his second cigarette when the screen door opened a while later.  Eva was holding Lenore in her arms, the child’s dark hair combed smooth, the ruffles of her best bonnet ironed crisp.  After she’d dressed her, she wasn’t sure what one did next, and she wished her own mother was still around – cruel as she was – to tell her.  She handed her over to Dirk, who took her gingerly and carried her to the truck.  He was going to take her down the road, where an old farmer could make a coffin small enough for one so little.

“How you gonna do this?” she called across the yard. “I ought to come, too, to hold her.”

“I put a basket on the seat last night,” he said. “I don’t need you.”

She watched him climb into the truck and she eased back into the house so slowly the screen door didn’t make a sound in her wake.  He was backing out of the drive when she flew out again, leaping off the porch as she hadn’t since she was a younger woman.  She cried out for him to stop, waving a small, snowy wool coat in her hand like a flag of surrender.  He put his foot on the brake and watched her through the side window as she ran to him.

When she opened the door, she was too winded to talk, but she held up the coat again and gave him a pleading glance.  He nodded, twisting in the seat to lift Lenore out of the basket he had lined with quilts out in the moonlight last night.  He held her between them while Eva carefully fitted the little arms into the sleeves.

He didn’t say that he thought people weren’t buried in coats.  He wasn’t sure exactly what was normal, but he figured he understood Eva’s mind this once.  She was crying as she fastened the buttons with her chapped, red hands.

“I thought she might be cold,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

They locked gazes then.  In the slanting morning light, this side of the hemlock row, he could see that tiger gold in back of her brown eyes.  She dropped her gaze, pushing the last button up through.  Her fingers slipped gently along the soft wool.  Dirk watched her for a moment; he didn’t feel that old impulse to put himself between her and the girl.  She stroked the coat once more, then her hand found the edge of the door as she stepped back.  Hesitating, she looked at him again.

“I’m sorry.” They were the only words she could find.

He heaved a sigh. “Maybe you ought to hop in, Eva. I think that’s how it ought to be.”

Something tried to draw up her mouth, but grief is a heavy thing and the smile could not quite bloom.  She folded herself into the truck and he handed her the child with the tenderest care he could find in himself.  She took her from him that way, too, the crook of her arm a quiet poem about everything.

Birthday

The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows.  If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.

In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions.  All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot.  Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling.  They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it.  But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air.  If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around.  She will never be happier than on this walk.  She and the woods speak a common language.

I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor.  If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath.  Yet I know what lies under them.  I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works.  Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?

____________

My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter.  We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again.  We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain.  She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying.  The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.

  ____________

When a parent dies, they leave a child.  The age of the child does not matter.  When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown.  In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again.  I thought I knew my past.  But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit.  The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.

____________

On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument.  This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear.  We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other.  Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs.  We are on the bed and in the kitchen.  Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.

Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it.  I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come.  It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy.  The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.

On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen.  The noise is tremendous.  I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last.  Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something.  Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.

I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum.  I stop only to hold him because he is crying.  We are children parenting ourselves and our love.  He fears we cannot find our way back.  I think we’re halfway there.

As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground.  I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home.  And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep.  It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.

The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain.  No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles.  My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.

____________

When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen.  There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again.  We will walk away the next time.  We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.

Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew.  It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it.  Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface.  I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air.  She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.

In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing.  Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort.  I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.

____________

She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods.  I knew it because she knew it.  We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end.  We step close, but not too close.

The other end is called the deep end.  Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale.  It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water.  I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.

If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface.  But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves.  If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.