he wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld
-James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Appearance is destiny. Just ask any born-blonde with double-d cup breasts. Ask any dwarf.
My gorgeous biological mother spent most of my childhood on her hands and knees. You could say she was scrubbing. Outside, Chicago’s Southside, there were scenes of shame and aftermath bathed in attenuations of rotten smoke on the wind and The Stockyards ruled the smells when this wind changed and thickened in the reversing, shrouding all forms. If you needed to see diamonds you smashed bottles. My biological mother kept the windows shut to ban the stinks and evil. We were trapped out there because of how we looked. I knew this. Who didn’t? Mother applied makeup by the light of a bare bulb in the cracked ceiling. I watched from behind the angled door as the eyelashes went on, thinking they were real and living and painful.
On weekends, some of my uncles would take us for a drive to the forest. Mother would stuff me in the back seat with a splintery-to-the-touch picnic basket and off we’d go. Injuns could drive right off of the Reservation in those days. Drive right out of the concentration camp in their pyjamas and into the surrounding forest. One could hear The Temptations in the trees, between the leaves and under the woodbridges spanning the creek. I can remember finding a rock that looked like Loraine Hansberry and begging my mother to let me keep it.
Sometimes we’d get a late start and end up in the forest hiking west, hands in a salute to shield our eyes, climbing into, then descending across, the molten fuse of the penumbra of the long tail of the dying fall of twilight while most of America watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Holding her hand I’d follow my biological mother follow the goateed uncles into a stilled clearing. It was always the same spot, where two big trees flanked a younger tree, at the bottom of a rocky hill. We’d put down the blanket near the base of this rocky hill and eat poorly. The blanket would make a portrait of my mother’s long thin legs in the glowing dark and maybe I might think this is right, or this isn’t right, or this is my mother: a child protected by his limited perspective. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about going back and trying to find that spot, in those woods, where those three trees live, their branches intertwining in canopy heights. If I could go I would do it. I would know just where to look and hurry there. I suppose my soul goes often because it is separable; only this body is the problem. My soul won’t tell me why.
Mommy kept an unusual piece of furniture in the narrow hall outside her bedroom, a lacquered red dressing cabinet, taller than I was then, with a built-in closet whose doors swung out on what I assumed were hinges of gold. There were four little drawers at the top and these drawers were full of buttons, every variety: glass and bone and ivory and wood. Big square buttons she told me were from England, little scuffed leather buttons, like knots, that she told me were from Spain. She pronounced Malaga so richly it stung. I’d slide a stool to the dressing cabinet and climb up and open each of the four drawers to count the buttons. The top-most, left-most drawer was most magical, containing nothing but buttons in shades of red. Every shape and size and texture of red. Red as Mars, rich as a nosebleed, cinnamon-flavored Red Hots and life-sized ruby areolas.
“Don’t you know why those buttons are red?” she said.
I liked to peer into the four little drawers at night with a fireman’s D-battery flashlight while mother was away. And then, as she slept off her terrible parties, locked in her bed until long after Captain Kangaroo had come and gone in our living room, which was nothing but a very old Television that never went off (no off-knob) and a couch, I would try to guess, in advance, which buttons mother would need when she woke up. If she’d lost only two in a vertical row of four, she’d have to decide whether to remove the rest or try to match, and often strengthen, the remainders. I remember how happy she could be, on the mornings after, if all the buttons had been ripped away, instead of just two or three, saving her the trouble.
I only remember vignettes from those days. Cameos. The rest is murk, a puzzle for a black giant with time on his hands.
I see my early self as a gray photograph on the bottom of a troubled ocean. I see the front of the black-bricked tenement we lived in, the dirty shades never anything but lowered in our dark windows… I see Sammy Davis Jr. and Kim Novak. I see Miles Davis and Juliette Greco. I see President Eisenhower’s mother. Her lips and nose. The Contortions singing Do You Love Me?
One morning my mother unlocked her bedroom door and cornered me in the bathroom and spontaneously covered me with the kind of kisses I’d never known. The kisses that meant she would always love me. A minute later there was a beige-colored sedan, the insignia of the state of Illinois on its doors, parked out front in the sparks of the drifting haze. A white man and a white woman got out, the woman breathing through a handkerchief. They came and got me. They didn’t need a net.
The next thing I knew I was in Pulaski Park, standing on the strangest welcome mat, of two old white-haired white people, whom their mat identified as The Englands. Skinny old Mrs. England bent over and wrapped me in her dry white arms. It had never really occurred to me, in so many words, that I was black, until the day I got white parents.
It took some getting used to.
I attended a literally otherwise all-white elementary school called Eisenhower Elementary where all the janitors were dead ringers for Martin Luther King. Fourth and fifth grade crawled by with mild discomfort but little or no remarkable incident. On special occasions, the teachers leaded (and beauty-marked) their lipless faces, sporting powdered white wigs so high I feared they might topple as the teachers waltzed in and out of their classrooms. There were alumnae who looked too much like Elvis patrolling the halls with bats and paddles and the librarian was a ringer for Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The principal sprinkled a Germanic vocabulary in the announcements he made, in a disciplined monotone, over the crackling PA.
They punched their corrective holes through Dr. King and several of our janitors displayed stigmata. My cherry-red transistor played OC Smith’s version of Little Green Apples and soon thereafter I shot up, growing to six foot three by the end of seventh grade. I watched The Mod Squad.
I was a bookish, sensitive child but I was six feet three and weighed one hundred and seventy pounds at the age of thirteen. A black giant. The blackest. The photon sponge.
I had athlete written all over me but I rebelled, I deliberately cultivated a magnificent gracelessness, displaying fiendishly spastic inabilities on every playing field. In the beginning, team captains would argue bitterly, for the right of first pick, to have me. Lumbering across our gymnasium’s immaculate basketball court, my comrades clamoring for battle in a wedge behind me, I would feel sick at the terrified nausea my appearance could project upon the drained faces of the opposing team. Everyone learned soon enough, however, what I was determined to teach them: I was lousy at sports. In my incapable hands a basketball became lifeless. A football seemed coated with grease. Also, at various school parties, I set out to prove that I couldn’t dance (lacking congenital rhythm), that I was only barely concerned with girls (not sex-crazed, nor potential rapist) and that I preferred classical music over funk, r&b or soul. I refused to be an open book. I refused to be a boy with certain qualities. I was a boulder over an abyss refusing to fall.
Eisenhower Elementary, then Joseph Pulaski High School.
Clocks whirred. Richard Pryor turned thirty five.
Puberty pumped me until my voice split and I stuttered and fumbled and bumped into all the furniture I could find. Time was a homecoming drunk at the wheel. The thing between my legs (what Ma England had been in the habit of calling my “dinky”) blew up and stood up and stood out like a devil. Of the Old Testament and crusted in its segmentations.
I would go rigid as the perfume that arced from nape to nates of the floss-headed girls, like summer lightning, in the halls of school or in lines at the Mall, found me. I had to hide myself by artfully draped sweaters or by carrying my schoolbooks like a send-up of the pelvis-forward co-eds I was forbidden to touch and implicitly cautioned against approaching. If they approached I couldn’t even keep my eyes downcast because they were down there. Look forward, I told myself. Study the wall and the cross-street. Learn the horizon. Cultivate the air of a disinterested dreamer.
What I dreamed was holding a hand, a little white nail-polished hand, a hand to grip in my big black mitt like Jack Johnson. Receiving change from the freckled cashier sprinkling mercy’s eighty-nine cents on my palm, I wanted to groan as though the coins were molten or thorned. The nearness of such a hand was an ice-cream sundae taunting a skeletal East African crawler in dust. A skeletal crawler digging his meandering furrow with a horse-choking erection ruddering the dust. Flies around his eyes and mouth like African cupids. Me.
(Of course now all you’d need, to trade for anything you’d want , really, especially love, frankly, is a packet, you know, of Camel Filters.)
The real miracle of my first second childhood, with the Englands, was how little ridicule or abuse the three of us attracted, although there I was, at the age of sixteen, already six feet and ten inches tall and black as an inverted pit, flanked by this paper-white couple, my hand wrapped around my adoptive mother’s with the brutal innocence of a baby elephant’s prehensile tip. My big head swinging as I walked. I can’t imagine a sillier picture. Maybe we were too unbelievable to mock out loud. Maybe mocking us out loud would have been as embarrassing as reporting a UFO to the authorities. Maybe we were spared by an absurdity clause. Maybe I was always insane, rather than black. Hadn’t I spread rumors, that Lt. Uhura was a second cousin once-removed, in gradeschool? Hadn’t I written poems signed by imaginary felons?
Only once, yes, I remember, yes, crossing the parking lot of the Pulaski Park Mall, mother England in tow (and me all got up in the glassless eye-glasses I’d begged for, clutching a book, of Matthew Arnold’s poetry, including Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse, to my breast), both of us in dignified dress, when a hot rod with flame decals, blaring Renaissance madrigals, screeched a doughnut of burning rubber around us, fishtailed and shrieked off, leaving us to shake in a sliced blue cloud of sliding halves. Other than that nothing excruciating pops to mind.
Except. Ah yes.
One month before.
Ma woke me by tickling the whites of my big feet.
“Rise and shine, Dusty,” she said. “It’s a lovely Saturday morning!”
It’s unfair how the intensities of even the tenderest facial expressions mark the face in Time and of it. Ma England’s mug was grooved and creased and rutted to depth. She leaned over my dwarfed bed smiling that broad, unmitigated smile and instinctively my arms rose up around her. Her twinkling eyes were recessed in a topological map of the Badlands. The imprint of all those little streams and rivulets and wrinkled river beds told their soft story on my smooth black cheek as she printed her kiss and withdrew.
Sunlight soaked through the blue curtains of my open bedroom window and a breeze formed bodied shapes in the curtains, a shifting family of daylit shades as the sunlight measured my enormous feet. I heard the buzz of a dozen distant lawn mowers and lo, the whack of the mower blade scalping a baseball or spitting a stone at a conservative’s ankle and yea, I lay there, a pampered freak, black Gulliver, as the dying breaths of grasses mown informed my intermittent dreams and still, half-dreaming, I had an aerial view of the green and mauve grid of my neighborhood, the split-level homes fixed to perfect rectangles of municipal self-belief, partitioned by interstices of sidewalk and trimmed by driveways, the total pattern so awfully neat. From high high up, detached from my big black body, I watched the neighborhood’s charge of children flow back and forth between houses, the flow along the narrow channel of the sidewalk, a steady exchange of blonde electrons. In the matrix of the suburb of Pulaski Park our house was close to central and in the structure of the England residence itself my bedroom was dead-center and in the cell of my bedroom, I lay along its prime meridian, panting and prostrate and so obscenely heavy in the dick.
Billy Stewart sang Summertime. Then came Carl Douglas.
“Dusty! Dusty get up, boy! Breakfast is nearly ready!”
Pa was a decent old guy but it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t prepared to love me, not the way his wife did. Any love from Pa went to Ma. It focused through the lens of Ma and warmed me that way. Pa had agreed to adopt in the first place as a loving sacrifice to her. He loved that old woman so fiercely that one day she said, after reading an article in the Tribune, Pa I think we should adopt an underprivileged Negro boy and raise him as our own and Pa didn’t even blink (or he didn’t blink for long) and said Okey-dokey. A funny little man with a Kirk Douglas chin and a woodworker’s grimace.
“Coming, Sir,” I called through my door, hopping into pants.
“Okey-dokey, Dusty,” he said, limping down the stairs. I put on a tee shirt and my glassless eye glasses.
I stooped low and out my door, bent forward all the way down the quiet stairs, touching for luck various things on the way to the kitchen: the corners of the framed photos of Family England on the stairwell wall, the bishop-like knob at banister bottom and the dusty leaves of a tall rubber plant in the living room. Barefoot, in shorts and white tee-shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, my feet in the deep orange nap of the living room carpet, I nearly belonged to my deluded daydream of a version of that picture. The mirror tiles on the far wall, near the arch that opened into the kitchen, however, mocked me. It was the shock I suffered every day before sharing breakfast with my adoptive family. Daily, I had to face the wall of mirrors and that tall black winking creature in it.
“You’d better hurry, Dusty. Pa will beat you!”
Mother England was grinning over the stack of pancakes she shifted to my side of the table. Pa and I were both fast eaters.
I was already halfway through a toppling stack when Ma said, with flinch-inducing innocence, “Have you asked a girl to your senior prom yet, Dusty?”
This paralyzed me mid-swallow. I blinked. Across the yellow Formica-topped breakfast table, Pa stiffened.
I looked at Pa, brows raised and he winked and said “The prom’s not such an important thing, Mother. If you ask me it’s just a lot of foolishness, an excuse for kids to get hooked on cheap liquor. I’m sure Dusty is better off sitting that one out.”
Pa’s wispy white top-hairs began rising, sensing an impending lightning strike. He kept having to pat it down again with one hand as he forked his flapjacks with the other. Obscure Generals of the Confederacy skittered on rearing horses between the kitchen table and the sink. Pa took a mouthful of bacon, and said, summarily, “I wouldn’t worry about it, boy.” He smiled and showed burnt flecks on his old teeth. “You’ve got better things to do, around the old homestead, with me and Ma on prom night.”
Pa suggested, for instance, a Chinese checker tournament.
But Ma wouldn’t have it.
“That’s nonsense,” she said.
“A boy’s senior prom is the single most important evening of his high school career. Why, in a way, it’s like the doorway to adulthood. It’s something you don’t want to miss, dear,” she said, and sat a big black pan of scrambled eggs on a tin plate on top of the counter beside the stove and turned to face us with her speckled arms crossed over her flat bosom, warming to the subject and prepared to set Pa and me straight.
She leaned back against the hot white face of the stove and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Dusty, surely there are girls you’ve come to notice during your time at Joe Pulaski High, girls you might like. Well, the girl among that group that happens to like you back, she’s the gal you ask. You’re not going to sit there and tell me my very own son’s a chicken, are you?”
Pa said, “Mother, Dusty isn’t even interested in girls. He’s…”
But Ma cut him off so firmly that it suddenly dawned on me that she wasn’t the scatter-brained saint that she seemed most times: she knew. There was iron in her and under all that powdered sugar was a tough old bird I’d never bothered to notice before and she knew. She understood the subtext of the conversation and she would have none of it.
She cut Pa off, saying “Oh Edwin that’s pure bunk and you know it. Dusty’s a healthy young man and healthy young men have an interest in girls. Dusty’s perfectly normal and of course he’s interested in girls! I never heard such foolishness! So you just hush and let Dusty answer for himself!”
“I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, ma’am.”
“Yes you have, Dusty! You’ve given it an awful lot of thought. I can tell. Too much thought, if you ask me. It’s very simple. You go up to a girl and ask her if she already has a date to the prom and if she says yes, well, there’s no harm done because some other fella beat you to it. And if she says no, she doesn’t already have a date to the prom, it’s a sure sign that she’s willing to go with you! Goodness sakes, Dusty, I’m not suggesting that you should ask Greta Garbo to the prom! A sweet girl with a sense of humor who’s light on her feet will do. She doesn’t have to be ravishing. Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some girls are not particularly easy to look at from the outside, but on the inside they may be the next Mona Lisa.”
The healing rays of Ma’s love for me were so powerful that I was actually beginning to believe that attending the prom was possible. Why, after all, shouldn’t I expect to be able to attend my own senior prom? So what if I was the lone colored boy in a graduating class of four hundred and fifty, the lone black face in a total student body (not counting four Koreans, a Mexican and a Queer from the Philippines) of over one thousand two hundred white ones? This was several years before Jonestown.
Putting my fork down, I poked my thumb and fore-finger through the lenseless gaps in my glasses and rubbed my eyes and said, tiredly, “There are a few girls at school that seem nice…”
“That’s the spirit, Dusty!” she said, and pleased, she began dishing out the scrambled eggs. When Pa had a certain amount on his plate he stuck his hand up and said, glumly, Okey Dokey. He was expecting the worst.
After breakfast I helped Ma England by toweling dry the dishes, towering as we stood together at the sink. Pa sank into a speechless funk and wandered out back. We watched him through the kitchen window, plucking litter from the hedge that fenced our property. Then he froze suddenly and crouched down, peering hound-like into the prickly mass of the hedge, galvanized.
From where we watched him, it looked important.
He remained in a crouch for quite awhile before acting. Then he bent into the bushes, exposing the pink over-flow of his rear and the long red comma partitioning his cheeks and he fetched something from out of the earth. He turned towards us with his prize, holding it high where it was dully reflective in the sun, and he ambled to the kitchen window with a big smile on his squinty red face until we could see that he’d found an old whistle.
(The awful whistle.)
Later I went back to my room and flopped onto my bed and thought it over again.
The prom idea. It made my mouth dry as a sock. It made me horribly hard and wretched. I thought “You’d better hurry, Dusty. Pa will beat you!” over and over…
Monday morning I climbed out of the family station wagon and waved bye to Pa and faced the long gray concrete and glass bunker of Joseph Pulaski High School with my usual sour stomach. I often thought of anthropodermic bibliopegy as I entered that building; in the 18th century I would have made so many handsome editions.
When I entered the building, turning right into that long bright bustling hall of lockers and trophy cases and out of date maps of the world, my eyes took in the crowd of lip-biters and nose-pickers and hair-chewers and nail-biters that I had grown up with. I looked down on the lank, sparrow-brown, center-parted tresses and the luminous blonde pageboys and the curly red mops and the glossy black bobs and the sandy bowl cuts and the frizzy, mouse-dry brown perms and all the oily pompadours, a complex pattern given form by the violent clusters of crew cuts concentrated in every corner. The tops of so many different heads and not a one like mine.
Ma was my only barber. I haven’t had it cut since you know when.
I had submitted a poem to the school newspaper:
our love for the living
our love for the living is
divided by some
passion for the dead, the wept-for
who burst in violent bloom from
the body’s seed, bloom
as stars, dark
flowers rooted in
the memory’s soft
soil. like this poor
girl on the News for whom
the brute did
half-undress, beating himself
like an object in her
cold arms. our thoughts are with her,
she and other recent émigrés, so often
deported naked. perfected
by the batterer’s ambition, or ripped
to let the
life out, the flesh remains a
never-claimed collateral deposited against
Death’s expenses. the living
(for this alone we resent them)
make use of the potash.
our love for the living is refuted
language of the Dead, the
days and nights of speechlessness that
But the editor claimed it was too angry. I submitted another:
walking through the house one night
discovering a left-on light
i feared some secret company
which technically i had: forgetful
and forgotten selves
alive behind my back
But the editor said it was too Negro; too “niche”; and that most of the students wouldn’t be able to relate. I submitted, a week later, in desperation, a third poem but the editor claimed I had stolen it from Langston Hughes and he was so convinced of it (with his red cheeks and sweat-webbed sideburns) that, in the end, I think I began to believe it was so. Was this mine, or Mr. Hughes’?
________the nigger bard
at best avoided, at worst
black inconsequence affords
the nigger bard few
even then, the ones who do
confuse his grief
I never submitted the poem I wrote after that. The Wake of the Homecoming Queen. I dared not write it down.
I woke from a feverish nap
I could hear Ma bumping the iron snout of the old Hoover against the baseboard of the hall outside my room. The Hoover huffed and bayed, a crazed bully hound on the scent of this defenseless bear. Ma backed it towards the upstairs bathroom. I sat upright quite suddenly and I jumped out of bed.
Ma switched off the Hoover.
“I didn’t realize you were home so soon from school, sweetheart!”
Compassionate hug. I slipped out of it and edged into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. Sure enough, I found my scattered lakes of microscopic Negroes swimming in place in several long ovals distributed along radians from a point centered on the toilet, each long puddle an entire race, a racing race going nowhere at tremendous speeds, tails whipping, the nearest fertile egg a thousand yards (a semen light year) away in the segregated ranch house next door. The college-age daughter with upturned nose, home for the vacation. Perry Como records. I bunched a wad of toilet paper and blotted the puddles up, the self-hating god dealing with the tragic creatures he’s emitted in his own image. Out of the bathroom I slipped.
Ma stooped to loop the fraying cord around hooks screwed at both ends, of the heavy handle, that the bag of the Hoover dangled from and she prepared herself to summon the strength to frog march the machine to its closet. The Hoover was a nasty old antique I had feared as a child. Words in yellow on the dark green cloth of the bag had decades ago faded into subtle crusts that barely insinuated a language.
When that bag was new, I thought and shuddered. I reached around Ma and straightened her with a hug and, as though she’d read my mind, she let me lead her downstairs for a chat.
We sat on the sofa and looked through a photo album spread open upon the coffee table. The photo album teemed with severe faces in dire circumstances. At least two of the well-dressed gentlemen, pictured full-length on the crumbling tin plates in the album’s front, had been slave owners. Ma had never confessed this; it was Pa who told me.
“This was old George Cavanaugh.” Ma chuckled over a moth-colored daguerreotype.
“He was a real rake, the old coot. My grandfather, Dusty! His wife was Olivia Payne Travers. She shot him! Caught him with her sister. He survived it and they had two more children together after he recovered. We’re strong stock, Dusty.”
Truth be told, I had no interest in the horrible people in that book. Without a doubt, they would have hated me. Even County Travers, who Ma proudly pointed out was an abolitionist… would he have nodded with pride to see the weird mingling of bloodlines his work eventually led to? That stern expression, those maddened eyes. Posed with a rifle. Hand on his hip. He would have hated me. He would have sold me to the circus.
Towards the rear of the book, where modern times commenced, according to Kodak, there were black-and-white, and then color, snapshots of me, from the age of nine, up. It was difficult to identify myself with the grainy early shots I saw there. Look at that featureless smudge in striped shirt and knee pants, pushing a toy truck on the orange (light gray in the snapshot) carpet. The racist exposure speed of the film. Photographed by D.W. Griffith.
Or outside with a fishing rod, beside Pa, in front of a pond, my eyes downcast, a grin splitting the toy spade of my face. Or the color shot at the table in front of my tenth-birthday cake, eyes immortalized mid-blink, the fey white child beside me selfishly reflecting the majority of the flash’s blast, his blue pupils red, his fair hair tousled under a paper party cap in a balloons motif. Why, when looking at that happy photo, can’t I shake the impression that it’s the white boy’s birthday?
Ma closed the book. She sat back in the couch, her hands playing dead in the lap of her house dress. She looked me over carefully before speaking.
“How old are you, Dusty?”
She asked it quietly, as though it was a highly personal matter. Old people get in that habit.
“I’m eighteen, Ma. Nineteen in the fall.”
“And how old do you think I am?”
I smiled and proceeded to answer what seemed at first to be a simple question. I had to stop when it dawned on me that I could not. Not even a ballpark figure. How old was she? I had no idea. I didn’t know the age of my own mother. I hazarded a guess.
She laughed and laughed. She pinched my cheek. When she regained her composure she told me.
I couldn’t believe it.
“People warned us the age difference would be a problem as we got older but Pa and I think that it’s worked out quite well. Women usually out-last men, you know, by about fifteen years, so we’re balanced, I think. We’ll probably go around the same time. We couldn’t ask for a nicer anniversary present, Dusty.”
I stared at her, then at the coffee table, then at the floor.
“I know you hate to discuss such things, Dusty, but you’re very close to being a man. Your childhood is drawing to a close. Ho hum everyday realities are soon to become fond memories, son, which is the beauty of life. We shouldn’t hang on to things, you know, but it’s human nature. We cling to what we know. But change is what life on earth is about. We fear change, you know, so time is the Lord’s apparatus for forcing it.”
She took my enormous mitt in hers and coaxed me to eye contact.
Before The Prom (for which, of course, I still had no date), Ma proposed a kind of fire drill for it.
At seven o’clock on Thursday evening I drove to the Pulaski Park Mall and bought a box of chocolates and a mixed bouquet of flowers. I was dressed as nicely as I could (at my size it was extremely difficult to find formal clothing) in a burgundy cardigan sweater and a white shirt and knit tie with trousers from The Tall Man’s Emporium.
I drove back home and rang our doorbell twice, curtly. I waited. Acting her part, Ma didn’t answer the door straight away but responded with the tardy hauteur of a teenaged beauty. She opened the door wearing a dark blue dress with white polka dots, her lamp of white hair pinned up.
“You look really nice,” here my voice broke, “Marguerite.”
It gave me a weird chill using her first name. But she’d insisted, to make the simulation seem more authentic, that I treat her like a real girl that I was taking out for the first time. So I called her Marguerite. I presented her with the flowers and chocolates and she set them down on a chair just inside our front door. I extended my arm and she took it. She seemed to weigh ten pounds.
I squired her down those familiar concrete steps to the walk. Crickets unwound and fireflies flared experimentally in the not-quite-dark of the bushes. Kids up the street were playing hockey on roller skates, the mean slap of sticks on puck reaching us a full half-second, each time, after the violent image of it. Suburbia’s twilight hissed out of vents in the earth as a gold and mellow gas. I felt a terrible nostalgia for that moment, suddenly, even as I was living it, as though remembering it from a lonely place in the future.
I held the door for Ma and she folded down onto the sun-warmed car, which was just beginning, conversely, to cool in a steady breeze that shook the head of the maple tree over us. Ma smiled up at me, looking so touchingly small. I drove nervously as she watched but I managed, despite the added pressure of motorists and pedestrians staring, to drive well as we navigated the waking dream of Pulaski Park, or, that is, as its scenery rolled by us.
I guided the station wagon into a diagonal parking space in front of a little island of a building across an open lot from the work-in-progress of the mall. The one-story building had glass walls with filmy pink drapes filtering, into moving abstractions, whatever I could make out of what was going on inside. There was muted music and sparkles. The marquee over the entrance said Pulaski Park Ball Room and under those big blue space age letters the smaller words of an as-yet-unlit neon sign said modern dancing since l957.
We made our entrance and everyone in the silver haze of the ballroom, where bossa nova chugged from discreet loudspeakers. The closest of our first witnesses could only bend far enough back to see as high as my middle. Lights fired carelessly from the mirror ball spinning under the ceiling. I was so near to the ceiling myself that I could hear the cranky whine of the motor that drove that ball as we passed under it.
As we commenced to dance, I hid behind my glassless horn-rimmed glasses. I attempted the difficult trick of averting my eyes from the skeptical squints that glinted from every angle of the room. My body itself was a serious breach of etiquette. At my height, the impolite truth is that a tiny woman comes face level to my crotch. I’d never noticed it, hugging Ma at home but in public it glared so we adapted strategically to the problem. I learned to keep a little to the side, my arms out a bit, to produce the illusion of closeness without pressing my groin into my partner’s face.
After a few different dances we got the hang of it. Gradually it became fun.
When Ma was tired I bought her a soft drink and we sat a few out in two of the folding chairs lining the glass walls. It felt like a real date. Ma’s voice itself was suddenly that of a young woman’s. Her perfume smelled as sweet. Had she really been young once? She had.
“What was it like, meeting Pa?”
Ma shook her head and sipped her drink. “Pa was the rudest man I’d ever met. That’s what intrigued me about him, I guess. All the other men I knew treated me like god’s gift but not your Pa. He treated me like a stray puppy, honestly. I was so angry with him, I stayed up nights thinking of sarcastic things to say to him the next morning. I was thirty, you know, Dusty. I’d already been married and divorced when I met Pa. He told me he was a college man but that turned out to be a fib. We worked in the same grocery.”
She took another sip of her drink and though it was only Gingerale, it seemed to have the effect of making her tipsy. She loosened as we talked.
“Would you like to know a secret, Dusty?”
I said of course but in truth I wasn’t sure. She cut her eyes at all the other elderly white people dancing through the music in front of us and they all, in turn, studied their feet or the ceiling.
“Before I got serious with Pa I was in love with a colored fellow. Did you know that? I’ll bet you’re surprised,” she said, slapping my knee, and by god she was right. I was stunned.
“Walter Harvey Phillips.”
She said the name with pride, then repeated it again under her breath, marveling at the sound of it. “I haven’t said that name out loud in forty years!” She finished her drink, then said “In fact, I think I’d like to hear myself say it again.” She took a deep breath. “Would you mind if I did, Dusty?”
I said no.
She put her tiny wrinkled hand on my shoulder. “Tell me if you do mind, dear. Honestly.”
I said, Ma, really, it’s okay. Say it again if you want to.
“Walter Harvey Wadsworth Phillips.”
She closed her eyes, nodding.
“He worked for the colored newspaper, The Defender. He wasn’t a reporter, I believe he set type but he carried himself like a newspaper man. Wore one of those hats, and his shoes always polished with a spit shine! My, he was dandy. Fine and dandy. All the ladies in the grocery swooned when he came in but of course most pretended to look down on him because he was colored. Most, but not all. You look surprised, Dusty, but the truth is, in many ways, relations between the Negro and Caucasian races were actually more advanced in those days. Ordinary people got away with quite a lot, if they were discreet. Unmarried love calls for extreme discretion in any case, so, in the end, it doesn’t make much difference.”
She handed me her empty glass. “I’d like another, sweetheart,” she said.
I fetched it on wobbly legs. When I crossed the vast room from the bar back to her, she was in the process of fending off an unwanted proposition to dance from a red-haired Casanova (spotted scalp glinting under a cirrus of sparse curls) in a white ascot and spats. “Ah, my date’s back with my drink!” she announced suddenly, as I materialized, golem-like, behind the old rake. He turned and looked up and stepped back and stumbled against a chair. Ma patted the seat beside her and I sat.
“We called him the Duke of Woodlawn avenue.”
“The Duke of Woodlawn avenue. The grocery was on Woodlawn Avenue, on the Southside, near the University of Chicago. He came in every day to buy a few things. Bachelor food. Bread and jelly, tinned meats. One day… you know I worked as a cashier… one day, you see, I just couldn’t help myself and I offered to cook him a real dinner. My goodness! My best friend, Jenny Doyle, she was a cashier at that grocery too and she practically had a fit! She was just jealous, of course. But she claimed I was betraying my race but do you know what I told her?”
Ma handed me her drink so she could gesture freely with her wasting arms.
“I told her, Jenny Doyle, my race is the human race,” and here Ma brought both hands to her heart, “And the only way I can betray the human race is if I mistreat another human being, isn’t that what the Bible says? Well, that shut her up once and for all.”
Ma took back her drink.
That very night I had a fiercely murky dream.
My mother, my real mother, slithered through the warm silt of the dream like a soft brown sea snake, wrapping herself incestuously around the jutting forms of my subconscious. She kept reaching and touching me in that terrible place, and I kept fighting her hands away, her fingers like nipping jaws of fish. I woke, my own hand covering my mouth, in my black bedroom.
A gibbous moon jeered through my open bedroom window and blew a disrespectful breath on me. I was lying on a straw mat in a thatched hut in the jungle. There were no great cities yet. I was hallucinating the suburbs.
Under my room, in the master bedroom, Marguerite and Edwin were mumbling or frowning, up and down the slopes of sleep, their unisex chests rising and falling with involuntary synchrony, doll bodies fixed by the tender thumbs of gravity to opposite sides of the bed.
They were not of my people, I was not of them.
I rose from my bed in the suspense of the darkness and crossed the room. I stooped through my bedroom doorway and crept naked down the stairs. The dowdy old house was dreaming a monster, I think. At the bottom of the stairs, the rubber tree plant, exactly as tall as I was, a speechless Indian chief in the ultra gray haze of the living room. I turned left, away from the living room and padded down the short hall towards the master bedroom.
I stood in their door way for the longest time. Edwin was snoring and Marguerite tossed and turned, as a white writer would have put it. Sheer curtains floated over the picture window beside my adoptive parents’ bed, a member of that great invisible family, again, manifesting as a bulge and a flutter. Silver aimed down through the window to shape a few objects along the sill. An empty flower pot, a little ash tray from Mexico, a bottle of medicine, tweezers, that old tin whistle…
What was I doing? What did I want?
I loomed over Marguerite’s side of the bed. Anyone walking between our house and the neighbors’, at that moment, would have seen my purified shape through the curtains; the great atavism appended to its silhouette. The magnificent. The lurid trailer for a ’50s Sci Fi flick.
The next scene to feature spinning headlines.
The next scene to feature sirens.
The shackled man in the high-tech chair who shouts I’m innocent, I tell ya.
Marguerite’s thinning hair flowed out in waves across her pillow: antique light from a cracked pearl. The odor of the mentholated ointment she rubbed on her chest to ease breathing on warm nights rose in outrageous waves to stab me and I was certain I must be losing my mind or that History itself was losing it for me.
No more school, I thought.
No more shoes, I thought.
No more so-called civilization.
Was this the same old end or a new beginning? Was I sleepwalking or finally, for the first time, awake?
Didn’t I know why those buttons were red…?
Let Atlantis rise again. This is destiny.
Marguerite, I whispered.