The night my uncle Chandler did grievous damage to his Beetle at a bend in the road in North Carolina the phone rang. This was before my mother got her own place, on the other side of town, with a little help from a loan, made to her by my grandfather, from part of the payout on Chandler’s life insurance. I was Chandler’s namesake. Everyone called me Chan. I can remember staring at my tiny brown hands and trying to will them to be bigger. Like Chandler’s.
I was half-asleep in a summery way on a fold-out couch in the living room while mother slept in the room that had been hers before she moved out West to bear me. There we were, without rooms of our own, in Chicago. Uncle Chandler’s room they were using for storage since he’d married and moved away. The only phone in the house was on a little table near the door to the kitchen. I watched my grandfather come limping out of their bedroom, lit only by the spectral light through the curtainless window opposite the telephone. I could hear my grandmother pleading with him, as if she already knew. She said Daddy, don’t answer it as though it had been foretold.
Then Yes. Yes. I see, Sir, I see, with a voice I’d never heard him use before or since: my grandmother’s. He sounded like my grandmother. Who was my grandfather talking to?
The fast hand on the illuminated dial of the clock on the desk by the fold-out couch I lay on swept over the numbers and I remember telling myself that I would wake up when it hit the twelve but there was an explosion instead. My grandmother sent a scream across the house that lit up the night. She sent a scream through the night that I still hear sometimes as I am dozing, a scream not of grief but of rage and pure hatred toward life and her God. The scream of the first and last animal. That’s how Death entered my grandmother’s house at the end of an okay day. In the form of my 25-year-old uncle Chandler, the joke-teller, the great dancer, the speed-reader who had dozed while driving, dreamed no doubt he was flying and split the dry trunk of a tree with his Beetle. That tree had waited for one hundred or one hundred and twenty years or even since before the Civil War, maybe, or four hundred years, maybe, in that spot, before that road was even built, before anyone had tasted Coca Cola, before cars, the tree grew and strengthened there to fulfill its destiny and kill my uncle Chandler and his Beetle. The engine was still grinding when a bathrobed farmer pulled Chandler off the steering column and laid him out on the road, the center of his chest punched in. He’d hit that tree so hard that regions of his scalp and forehead still glittered at the funeral with windshield.
Driving from Chicago to Havelock will take you about fifteen hours. If you’re young and black and it’s 1968 and you’re not thinking ahead and you fail to get an early start, that’s putting you in Ohio, that’s putting you in West Virginia, that’s putting you in unknown parts of North Carolina after nightfall. No way you’re going to risk the motels and you are sure as hell not going to nap in the car on the old roadside. You’re going to try to bomb through it singing Sugar Pie, Honeybunch. You’re going to hope you don’t nod off at the wheel.
That was the last year we might have flown kites on the campus of the University of Chicago, then. That was the first thought I managed to put together after I’d grown accustomed to my grandmother’s decreasingly human howls: no more kites. I was too old for kites by then anyway.
We used to buy the kites for a few dimes each. Really good kites were fifty cents. Loved the ritual of bowing the cross-bars with twine and calculating just where to put the knots or weights in the tail. Loved this ritual as much or even more than I loved actually flying the kites, because the flying itself became tedious to me, being that I was not the kite. Loved watching Chandler’s big hands perform with such precision when we put those kites together and gave them life, jerking like fish in the Chicago wind at our laps as we pretended to promise to set them free while an oldie like Sherry Baby shrieked from my transistor radio.
Running through the campus of the University of Chicago is a grassy strip an eighth of a mile wide, from Stony Island Avenue to Cottage Grove, called The Midway. That’s where we’d take the kites to release into the Aquarian sky and what heights the kites mounted as we reeled them out as our dreamselves over people sprawling mellow on grass. Shirtless brothers tended grills before the altars of their fresh-washed cars, windshields bright, radio-speakers distorting Sly and Aretha Franklin. We saw the conga players and juggling show-offs and the moon-pale strummers, all the tattered tribes with their wild kids and dogs in the sacrificial fragrance of those grills, the now-forgotten achievements of barbecue geniuses rising up above even all kites. The sun was benevolently blinding and life offered thick smells of cocoa-butter and the pungent sticks we burned to repel mosquitoes while we rocked the porch glider at night. Think of straw-filled turds stinking up the bridle paths, smashed like flowerpots across the concrete paths through Jackson Park. Think of Chandler’s cologne, which purported to be Swedish and came in a leatherette case with a shaving kit, embossed gold lettering on the case and the handle of the brush.
One Sunday, when the streets of my grandmother’s neighborhood were alive with kids running bases or being pulled behind drowsy ice cream trucks and grandma herself was beatifically church-bound in a God-loving hat… this Sunday my lovely dark mother stood whipped by white sheets, in the back yard, as she hung our laundry and Chandler and my little cousin Ollie and I went for a drive. Chandler picked up Ollie and came for me and my mother waved, one hand on her hip, clothespins in her mouth, as we backed down the alley. Chandler must have been about nineteen, six years before he married the girl from North Carolina who caused his death. She didn’t crush Chandler’s chest with her perfectly normal hands but that doesn’t make Chandler less dead. If you told me the song Chandler was listening to in his sleep when the Beetle jumped the road I’d kill myself, every day, listening to it, thinking now? Or now? Now… ?
A gritty wind glowed black with tar and burned my skinny arm. It rushed my face as the Beetle charged full-throttle at the on-ramp of the expressway. We competed in the communal roar of TV families in woodgrain station wagons and frightening men on motorcycles and sideburned types wearing funny hats in cartoon profile in sedans. Chandler sang at the radio, the veins in his neck bulged, he drummed on the dashboard and the steering wheel singing uptight, outtasight. Ollie was nuts on the back seat because tall trucks thundered to pass like great ships and I giggled to know that Ollie had wet his pants in far less ecstatic states.
The thing about Motown was that it was not really completely black music and we all secretly knew it and were thrilled by the subtle transgression. The path this pointed to was off the plantation. You think Motown embodied “blackness” but real black music was gut-bucket blues and hollers that were the aural equivalent of Jews being forced to wear identifying yellow stars on their pyjamas. Motown, the sound of integration, was the underground railroad. Every number one hit was another mile toward the light.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon” came on and Chandler turned it up and rolled up the windows and I struggled mightily to keep from weeping. The only song as emotional for me was “Big Bad John”. I always wondered: did that dragon die from neglect or boredom? And why was Puff so equanimitous about dying? I knew for a fact I’d seen my grandfather wipe his eyes while working on his Buick and listening to “Big Bad John”.
I was chewing my lip in the passenger seat, playing with the plug-end of the seat belt, pulling it up over and letting it reel back, up and over and back again, lapsing in and out of pre-pubertal trances of hero worship. I was an ambitious kid so I hated being a kid; I hated being unambiguously identifiable as such: as a kid I was an open book, barely distinguishable from other kids. I had to grow up to become anything at all and anyone knew this by simply looking at me.
I would sneak a peek up at Chandler driving, this difficult thing he did as though it were nothing, then look down on my own silly brown shoes with no pedals to press and I’d peer up again and I just couldn’t imagine. Chandler was so big and funny and handsome and smart. What was it like to be him? What did he know, or know how to say, or act, or bluff at, that made all the difference? He had a car; he mastered heavy books I could read but never understand; he no longer lived at home and this didn’t seem to scare him.
I’d seen him so many times in my grandmother’s basement, tossing his boxers into the washing machine or pissing down the sudsy drain beside the washing machine and each time I’d been a little embarrassed about the hugeness of his penis, which, I now realize, was almost always semi-erect in the half-light of the spooky basement. Take off your pants at that age and your penis gets hard. My mother called mine a tinklebox. It didn’t seem to me to be merely a matter of difference by degree when I compared them. Chandler’s penis seemed to me to be some wholly other thing that grew out big and stayed when you were ready. A growth that would hurt, coming in, like a molar.
I was ambitious to be whatever it was Chandler was.
But what was he? What was I? I thought I might study Chandler and by studying Chandler become something, anything, because I loved him. If I need to understand love now, I can only do so by remembering love as it was then, so close to the original heat and danger of its invention, as comparable to the emotion it would grow into as the primeval, lava-lashed forest is to a dinky plastic playground in a city park. I loved Chandler jealously and greedily and absolutely without affection. I loved him so deep in the heart of my least rational self. I think I loved him from the same place in which the powder for my tantrums was kept dry. As a child sees it, affection is something for the weak (a pet rabbit, say, or one’s mother or even my grandmother’s hero, the crucified Christ). My feelings for uncle Chandler had nothing to do with any of that.
We took the off-ramp and the roar faded and we drove until I found we were navigating the campus of the University of Chicago.
I can’t remember if uncle Chandler was pointing out buildings and monuments as we drove or just driving up and down only partly-familiar side-streets, gloating about everything that now was his. The joke-cracking, good-smelling, highly qualified would-be citizen of an egalitarian City of the Promised Future that would come closest to materializing in a fraudulent Benetton ad of my middle age. We parked in front of the International House, built in 1932.
Students were in and out, up and down the stairs with pillows and stereos and boxes and boyfriends and their garment bags. The smell of the inside of the building, the polished banisters and hall furniture and dark molding that lipped the polished marble floor was so strong that it affected my posture because it was impossible to be your ordinary self in air that smelled like that. Chandler led us up a long flight of stairs and then down a hall and students (who looked to me like men, one very black) called Hey, Man! and my uncle waved and we came to a door and Chandler knocked. He pressed a finger to his lips and then gestured that we should hide on either side of the door.
Who or what I expected to answer I cannot imagine but the door opened and a head poked out and we did our job as kids, jumping and hollering to surprise her. But I was the most surprised as Chandler gathered her up and danced her around the hall where anyone could see. I had read the work book about sexual reproduction and seen the film strip and I knew what I was seeing. I’d seen silhouettes that looked exactly like hers in the film strip they played in the library but I’d never seen one looking anything like my uncle Chandler. Involuntarily, I saw the silhouette of Chandler’s penis and the word “penis” and I heard an official-sounding narrator say “the penis” and I felt sick.
You white! shrieked 7-year-old Ollie, giggling and I socked him but I thought it too.
I was sure I had seen her on my grandmother’s Television. She hunched forward and stuck her hand out and I stared at it like a claw but it was anything but.
“I hear you are going to be a scientist.”
I could not take my eyes off that hand; it looked so normal.
She talked funny and she let Ollie touch her hair. I wanted to slap Ollie’s hands away and I wanted to say: “You’re in trouble, Ollie!”
I wanted to say, “Isn’t Ollie in trouble now, Mama?” but Mama wasn’t there. Only Uncle Chandler was there and Uncle Chandler was in much bigger trouble than Ollie. Jules and Chandler and Ollie played card games on her dorm room bed and Ollie won every time, which I doubted was possible.
Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in the spring of that year and riots had flared up around the Southside of Chicago, where Ollie lived. I remembered my grandfather had before that referred to King as an “opportunist” but I also remembered, as I watched Jules play with Ollie, chasing him around her dorm room like a black puppy, that my grandfather had called “The White Man” a “son of a bitch” the day after King’s killing. Ollie and his mother, my Aunt Ellie, came to stay with us at grandmother’s house until things “simmered down”. It was a wonderful time; it was like camping out; we stayed up late and ate ice cream for breakfast.
The ride back home to my grandmother’s house, with a stop to drop off Ollie first, was weird, even with the radio on (Sly, Zager and Evans, the Chi-Lites) and the reversed roar of traffic and Chandler’s jokes and singing. Ollie, who would die before he hit twenty, was giggly in the back seat, beside me, as ever, as Chandler clowned and sang (and, sure enough, I saw that heart-shaped valentine’s of a wet spot in the bulls-eye of Ollie’s corduroy pants). When we finally pulled up in front of the canting stoop of that building on that filthy street in twilight, Chandler said, as we let Ollie out of the VW, before little Ollie could run up the stairs:
And Chandler put his finger to his lips.
And Ollie put a finger to his.
And we drove off honking. I was alone with my uncle in his Beetle and I didn’t want to be.
I could tell Chandler wanted to talk because I was usually the one who was dropped off first. But the World had come too quick upon me and I was speechless and the speechlessness made me as angry, like someone’s hand was over my mouth. I didn’t want to be anywhere and I didn’t know why. I was offered a Wint-o-Green Lifesaver and I said no. I was offered Juicy Fruit, too, and I shook my head and looked as angry as a ten-year-old could look without crying. Maybe I was crying. I’m sure I was crying by the time Chandler got me within fifteen minutes of home, my face a hot mess and the front of my shirt soaked with a solid V of tears and my hands I could no longer bear the sight of.
Chandler sang what becomes of the broken-hearted while steering with his knees so he could choreograph his gestures so silly and wonderful like The Temptations, both arms free. I hated him with all my love.