FURNISHED ROOMS, Wendy Jones
Thought you knew I was married, man. Have a wife and a daughter. Still married–on paper. Been almost seven years since we been together. Haven’t seen either of them since. But I still think about her, my daughter, I mean. She was just a baby when I left, six months old. Take a look at this picture…No, let it stay in the plastic. Don’t want to get it dirty. I stopped by a picture place on the way home from walking in the park…Sure it was cold. October. That’s why she had that snowsuit on…Then? She would’ve been… five… Yeah, five months old. I used to carry her to the park, so she could see the trees and get away from all that CEment… Her mama didn’t mind. She knew I wasn’t gon let nothing happen to my baby… Sure, that’s me holding her on my lap…That was two years ago, don’t guess I do look the same. I’ve lost a few pounds since then.
Now this picture is real nice… It’s still in that picture studio. See the painted trees. He musta took a lot of baby pictures, that’s why he had that high chair around… I didn’t have to hold her. I knew my baby wasn’t gon fall off the chair. She had more sense than that. When I left, she was already talking, could say, “Dada” and “Mama” and “Stop that!”… I don’t know. I used to take “Poochie,“ that was her toy dog, and put it behind me, so she wouldn’t see it. I’d give it back when she got upset. When I tried to take it again, she’d say, “Stop that!”… Yeah… Okay… See you later.
“It ain’t right, Epheseus, it just ain’t right.”
My sister is the only person in the world, outside of my Mama, who ever called me by my real name. It don’t matter how many times I tell her to call me Epps like everybody else, she never does. Now I just let her be.
I wished right now she’d let me be. I shifted my weight on the bed and took another pull on my cigarette. The springs creaked. Lou sat on the only chair in the room. It was a fat upholstery chair. One of the legs was off. So you had to be careful it didn’t rock. I’d pushed an old phone book under it. The chair was all right, so long as you didn’t lean too far to the left.
“I’m giving you this money so you can catch up on your child support. You not too far behind. Take it and keep the payments up now, you hear?” She lifted her head, her white cap bobbed up.
“Yeah, Lou, I hear you.” I looked down at her legs — white stockings looked funny on her cocoa-colored skin. Kinda like nylon ash. Went through all that trouble greasing the ash off her legs, then put on those stockings. Why did people who worked in hospitals have to wear white anyway?
“You never say anything when I talk to you.”
“When do you ever stay quiet long enough,” I asked looking her in the eye, “for anybody to say anything?”
“All right, I’ll listen.”
“What you wanna talk about?”
Lou leaned closer to me. “You! What you’re doing! Don’t you know it ain’t right to treat your child like that?”
“I haven’t got a job. Can’t even hit the number. If I can’t feed myself, how’m I supposed to feed her?”
“You’ve gone from bad to worse since you and Tee Cora separated. At least you worked part of the time then. Now you don’t work hardly at all.”
“I went down to the hiring hall today; they said they might have something tomorrow.” I stared at the crack on the wall above Lou’s head. It looked like a bolt of lightning aimed right at her. I stabbed out my cigarette in the tray on the nightstand.
“You’ve been saying that for two weeks now, why don’t you go down to one of those agencies to get some day work? At least you’ll have enough at the end of the day to get your jacket out of –”
“I’m not gonna wash no dishes nor mop no floors– working for peanuts. I’m a union man. I don’t come cheap!”
“Daddy scrubbed many a floor and Mama worked in many a white woman’s kitchen to put clothes on our backs and food on the table. If they did it for us, you can do it for yourself.”
“I’m not ever going to work and sweat my life away like Mama and Daddy.”
The chair crashed. She grabbed my collar. No air. Head splitting.
“Don’t you ever spit on Mama’s and Daddy’s grave like that again, or they’ll be digging one for you in the morning.”
“Let go!” I pulled free. Breathing deep, my head pounding. “Lou, I ain’t no five-year-old kid no more. Don’t you ever lay a hand on me again. If you do, I got a razor knows your name!“
Lou’s cap was hanging by a bobby pin, flapping over her right ear. Her bun was still neat on top of her head. Tears rolled down her round cheeks.
“Brother, Brother, what are we doing? I didn’t come here to fight. I came here to help you take care of your child… I’m so sorry.”
“I’m… I’m… I didn’t mean what I said neither just don’t push me around… Don’t push me around.”
I was coming from the Red Rooster. Feeling no pain, you understand. The air was swimming, and I was swimming, and it was beau-ti-FUL. Done got my sharkskin gray out of hock, was looking ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLL REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEET! Feeling fine as I wanted to. They was up on me before I knew it.
“That’s your father coming down the street.”
Still thin, but with more tired around her eyes: — Tee Cora. She had a little girl about four or five by the hand. Sunshine yellow dress. Looked just like her, the only place she favored me was around the mouth. Her little, sweet mouth was just like mine.
“No, Honey, I ain’t your Daddy. I’m your uncle,” I laughed real loud and walked away, didn’t look back. I dropped in at the Sterling. Memphis said something to me I didn’t like. Don’t recall what it was now. I hauled off and hit him. When I woke up the next morning, looked like I may a got the first lick, but I sure didn’t get the last. My right eye didn’t open for a week.
I remember playing with Tut and Bubba in my room, one of those millions of Sundays they came to the house for dinner.
“Where your Daddy at?” Tut asked quickly putting her thumb back in her mouth.
“I don’t know.”
This I don’t remember. This is legend: walking to the subway with Mama, Aunt Sudie, Tut, and Bubba. My small, warm hand must’ve been in Mama’s as we walked back home.
She started to answer my question about my father, then she looked up the street and said, “There he is now. That’s your father coming down the street.”
Sounds like something out of a B movie, but life is sometimes like that–offering impossible coincidences that have to be disguised in fiction because they’re not ‘realistic.’
He always lived somewhere in Harlem. He knew where we lived because we were in the same place he left us. His half-drunken mind may have been trying to find us. Or maybe that’s just me trying to find any feather-wisp to prove my father loved me. Anyway, he said, “I’m not your Daddy. I’m your uncle,” and laughed drunkenly down the street.
He was still related to me in his lie, just not my father. Why, even in his drunkenness, would he say that?
Guilt and what he should’ve done for me (I’m not talking about money), been to me, if he admitted he was my father. As an uncle, he was at a remove. Is that why he lied?
“What happened to you?”
“I got hurt.”
“I can see that, Epheseus, but how?”
“I had a few drinks and tripped on a hole in the sidewalk.”
“No hole in the sidewalk left that cut on your cheek
and closed up your eye.”
“If you know what happened, why you ask?”
“I don’t know why I fool with you. You just as determined as you can be to kill yourself, and not to do right by nobody, your child nor yourself neither.”
Aunt Lou came by with a basket for me the Easter I was eight. That was the first year Mama let me help wax the floor. Before that, I was always the first to fall on it after it was waxed. I was so sure once I got big enough to shine that hardwood floor, I wouldn’t fall on it. Soon after Aunt Lou swirled in in a navy-blue polka dot dress, my black patent leathers went flying and my tail went down. She laughed as she dusted me off.
Mama asked her to stay for dinner, but she said she couldn’t stay that long. She just came by to see how we were doing. Before she left, she said she had to try out her new camera. She wanted to take a picture of me. If it came out, she would make a copy for me and Mama.
I set down on the floor with my basket in front of me, my sky-blue dress spread around me in a circle.
Aunt Lou said, “Smile for me, baby.”
Then the bulb went off. I tried to catch the blue dots, but they wouldn’t stay still.
“Did you take this?”
“Yes How do you like it?”
“She… she looks real happy. You see her so often, you must be the Pure D expert on her. Does she ask about me?” I started to hand the snapshot back.
“No…she doesn’t. Keep it. That copy’s yours.”
I put the picture carefully on the dresser and picked up the apple and penknife on the nightstand. “Well, then she must be all right. Her mother’s got someone to take care of her when she works late and a good job–they don’t need me.”
“Working as a waitress by day and a cook by night ain’t no ‘good job,’ but she manages. Even so, every child needs a father…You had one.”
I looked out the window. Couldn’t see the bricks now — it was shutdown night. “If she needed me, she would ask about me, wouldn’t she?” I stared at the peel coming off the apple. It hadn’t broke yet.
“She doesn’t even know yet she needs you, but someday she will.”
The feather on Lou’s hat moved as she spoke. She could be Robin Hood in that hat if it was green instead of black. “How you know so much about it?” Finished now, I offered her the first piece.
She nodded no. “You not the only no-count nigger in this man’s town had a baby by a woman and don’t see nothing about it.”
Had to chew the piece of apple I had in my mouth before I could get my words out, almost choked. “What the hell you know about it? What you know about going out there working for the man? Working for peanuts and have him call you out of your name?”
“I’ve been working for the man since I was 14 years
“Yeah, and you a high-time nurse! How you know what I go through?” The peels I brushed off the bed landed in the small, metal wastebasket with a soft plop.
“I’m not a nurse! I’m a nurse’s aide. Might as well say a nurse’s maid! I lift and turn patients so they don’t get bedsores. I wash bedpans full of pee and shit. Shit stinks!” Lou’s fists hit the side of the bed closest to her. A little more to the left and she’d have hit the iron footboard.
“You don’t know what it’s like to put on a clean shirt and tie and go to one of those agencies and they hand you a broom.” I spit out an apple seed. It pinged the inside of the basket before falling in.
“And you don’t know what it’s like to go downtown In your Sunday best to walk in the park and have every other white man ask, ‘How much?’ Do I look like a ho? Do you look like a janitor? No! But one thing we can never do is become what they want us to be.”
“It hurts so bad! So bad! How can I take care of a wife and child when I can’t even take care of myself?”
“Nobody’s asking you to take care of a wife. Tee Cora works. She can take care of herself. It’s your child we’re asking you to help support. She’s just as much yours as she is Tee Cora‘s.”
“It hurts. It hurts so much!”
“Oh, Brother, baby Brother, I know it hurts. It hurts me, too, but we can’t hurt each other because of how the white man is trying to hurt us. How you think I feel, seeing you in these furnished rooms? Dirty, dying, broken-down furniture. Never no light, just a brick wall to look out on. I was there the day you first knew you had fingers. I heard you give that fine oration on Frederick Douglass to the school during Negro History Week. How you think I feel, seeing you living worse than the bums in the Bowery? How you think I feel?”
I hadn’t cried since I was five years old. I was crying and Lou was holding me and rocking me like Mama used to.
I did wrong. I should have kept up with my baby girl. I should have helped Tee Cora support her. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t work for no white man for peanuts. Even when I was in the union, I was in the lowest job: demolition. Me and Uncle Big Buddy laid bricks every summer I worked with him, from the year I was twelve till I went into the Navy.
It didn’t count, it was off the books. They didn’t write it down, so it didn’t count. Like we hadn’t done it at all. That’s the way they do things here. If it ain’t written down, it didn’t happen. Lou tells me a whole bunch of stuff she’s finding out at the Schomburg for her reading group. Seems a lot of things got written down didn’t happen and a lot of things didn’t get written down, but they happened just the same.
All they let me do was pick up rubble. I didn’t operate the ball. A colored man operate a machine! Don’t you know that’s far too complicated, much too hard for them? I could add up 20 figures in my head and be right nine times out of ten, and not far off that one time I was wrong, but I couldn’t operate the ball.
Sometimes I think the boss man thought maybe a colored man behind that ball wouldn’t aim at the building, but straight at his head. You know, he may have been right, and it wouldn’t have been a mistake, not at all.
Now, when I work, I like to do something I can be
proud of. I liked laying bricks. At the end of the day you
could see how far you’d come, see how much you had left. Sun was like fire some days, but it was straight, clean work. You line one brick up with the next, like parking a car. Just line one right up with the other one. After a while, you get a kind of rhythm to the work. You get just the right amount of cement on the trowel. The trick is to put it on in a few strokes, don’t keep coming back over it, just a few strokes, and place the brick right the first time, clean off the extra and dip in for some more and lay the next brick. It was clean and straight. Nothing I ever did in this life gave me as much satisfaction as laying those bricks.
When did I first start missing him? It wasn’t in grade school on those Father’s Days when I had to make my clay pipe or card for Mama. I would just explain to the teacher that I didn’t have one. I said it the way I would say I didn’t have a silver crayon.
It wasn’t even when other children began asking me where my father was. This made me curious. I saw that fathers were not optional. Before that, I thought that Mama, who could do so many other things, had made me by herself.
When I found out that mine had left, I looked around at the other fathers I knew. Lynne’s father always acted as if she weren’t there until she did something he could yell at her about. Bubba’s father beat him on his birthday in front of all the children in the neighborhood for riding his bicycle without permission.
Whenever us kids went to the zoo, or the park, or got together for holidays, it was the mothers who were there, not the fathers.
But Hope’s father wasn’t like that. He played basketball with her and her sisters. He taught them how to make ice cream sodas by adding just enough soda for a good foam, but not enough for the ice cream dollop to run over the side of the glass. He told us jokes that were so bad you just had to roll your eyes. When I ran into the wall while chasing Hope, he pushed the swelling on my head in with a quarter. It amazed me so much I forgot to cry.
As I got older, I had the feeling that there was no need to care too much about whatever man was in my life at the moment, because he was going to leave anyway. I was always right.
Working in Asia and Europe for The Calabash (“The only black news with international views”), those years after college, it slowly came to me that I was missing something more essential than my press card or my passport… I was missing my father.
If I couldn’t help feed and clothe her and send her to school, I couldn’t see her neither. What could I say to her? Here I am, your out-of-work father, here I am your drinking, out-of-work father, here I am your no g—
What you mean?… How you know a child don’t think that way? I wouldn’t have felt right, that’s all… Yeah, it hurt me. It hurt me to my heart to see a little girl about her age on the bus, or walking up the street, or playing in the park. You know, I used to go to a school near one of the places I stayed, just when it let out. Right after the first figure come out. I’d watch the children racing to get on the bus to go home, or getting into fights or crying about something as they ran to they Mamas. After that, I’d come in here and get piss-drunk with every dime I could lay my hands on…Sorry man, it’s the last one in the pack.
I was just intending to borrow it, you understand… the money Lou give me… I told you about that. Anyways, I was going to pay it back when I found work. I didn’t put it with my spending money. I put it away. Don’t mind you knowing, but you never know who else is listening. Each day I didn’t work, I borrowed a little more. A dollar for some takeout. Three dollars for a new shirt… No, I didn’t drink it all up. When you saw me that night, I had what was left after I sent Tee Cora ten dollars. Sixty dollars. Yup, sixty dollars. But you know, I hadn’t seen that much money together in a long time.. Ben, two more down here.
… No, I didn’t try to see her. I wasn’t paying child support. Tee Cora had the law after me for awhile, then I stopped hearing from Family Court. I guess she just give up… But what I was saying was how’d I know what her mother had been telling her about me? Lou was always trying to make Tee Cora’s side shine. I just didn’t want my baby to think less of me, from seeing me and knowing me. Maybe if she never saw me, she could make up all kinds of things about me. If I couldn’t be a man in her eyes, I didn’t wanna see her at all.
“You had it hard. I had it hard. We had it hard. I’m tired of this. What is this, Epheseus, a contest? The winner is the one who had the most pain? We both suffered something terrible, and we should be pulling together because of it, not pulling apart,” Lou turned around from the sink with the dishrag in her hand.
“You ever been a man?” I tipped back in the chair, resting it against the wall. Lighting the cigarette in my hand, I put the dead match on the table.
“You ever been a woman? In slavery we were raped, our children and our men sold away from us at a white man‘s finger-snap.” Lou attacked the kitchen table with the dish rag like it was the white man himself. “We were raped by the master and treated like dirt for being the object of his ‘affections’ by the mistress. We worked in the fields right alongside you, belly big or not and we were beat and lynched right alongside you.” She cupped her hand to catch the crumbs as she wiped. She swept up the dead match on the first go round.
“You were lynched and beaten and worked in the cruel sun and your children and wives were sold away from you and you had to watch and be silent as the master raped your daughters, your mothers, your women. So what’s the difference, Epheseus? I have a patient who has a bad heart. Another one has cancer of the lungs. They’re both going to die. Who’s to say who has the most pain or the worst of it? Let’s stop arguing about this and concentrate on the reason for our suffering.” Lou dumped the contents of her cupped hand into the sink.
“And what’s that?” Shifting my weight and exhaling a cloud of smoke, I brought the chair down flush on the floor. Never could find no ashtray in Lou’s house. I put the ashes in the cellophane from the pack.
She rinsed, wrung out and hung the dish rag on the sink before turning around to face me.
“The white man, Epheseus, the rich white man.”
“Tell me one thing. All this stuff you learning with your reading group, what good does it do you?”
“What do you mean? She stood over the table, a hand placed on either side of it.
“I mean, is it going to change your life any?”
“It makes me think clear.”
“All this clear thinking help you stop being a nurse’s maid, as you call it?”
”No! But I make sure I don’t act like one,” Lou was steamed now.
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Don’t be raising your voice in my house!”
“I can go to my own house, you know.”
”Yes, you surely can. I notice you got yourself a good supper before you left!”
“Yes, I surely did.”
“I don’t know why I fool with you!” She hollered at my back as I went out the door and down the stairs.
“Yes, it is.”
“I don’t even know my own.”
“Epps, you made no attempt to know your own.”
It was hard enough for me to talk as it was. I sure wasn’t gonna waste no breath arguing with Tee Cora. I tried to count up her age, but I was a year off. Tee Cora told me she was 13. Closer in color to my dark chocolate than Tee Cora’s milk chocolate, she had little, thin legs. Her legs were so shiny with Vaseline, they matched the shine on her patent leather shoes.
“Come closer, I can’t talk too loud.” I don’t know how I must have looked to her, stretched out in a hospital bed with one of those white gowns on. Probably the first time she’d see me that she remembered and there I was sick — real sick. Cancer of the esophagus.
My voice was tissue paper rustlin. “You oughtta put some Nu-Nile on your hair, make it grow real good.” I could see her flinch like I’d hit her. You know how you say the wrong thing and the minute it’s out your mouth, you know it’s wrong, but you don’t know how to take it back or what to say to make it better? That’s how I felt.
We talked about how she was doing in school–good– except for math. I was surprised, both me and her mama was good at math, should have been in her blood. Talked about a movie she’d seen with Sidney Portyeah. She’d liked it. No, I’d never seen any of his movies. I’d have to go see one soon as I got out of the hospital. We talked about a lot of things, but I’d lost her the minute I said that thing about Nu-Nile.
After she and Tee Cora left, I went over and over it in my mind and wished I hadn’t said it and wondered why it’d hurt her so. I kept thinking I could have said this or that to make her feel better after I’d said it. Maybe there wasn’t nothing I could say to her after all those years. Maybe she just come because Tee Cora asked her to.
What I said hurt her real bad. I could see her face cloud over for a second, then put on a polite smile. Not a smile just a curved mouth, and blank eyes. She’d shut the door on me. Or maybe I’d shut the door on her. I didn’t mean no harm by it.
Daddy was full-blooded Creek. Me and Lou got our wavy hair from his side. I’m not talking bout what some folks call ‘good’ hair. I can’t see what people want with that stringy mess the white folks got no how. No, this was Africa and the real Americans coming together. That ‘wave’ in our hair was the sum of black, nappy African and black, bone-straight Indian hair. My hair got down-right ripply, when it was wet. Nu-Nile kept it slick and shiny.
My baby didn’t get none of that hair from me. Her hair was fine and nappy like her mama’s: soft as rabbit fur and easy to break off when she pressed it too much.
I see now I shouldn’t have said it, but I didn’t mean no harm.
For weeks, Mama had been getting home late. One night she told me she was visiting my father in the hospital. He had cancer and wasn’t expected to live. Did I want to see him? I didn’t have to, she said.
I went to visit him on June 14–his birthday. Mama suggested I make a card. I hadn’t made cards in years. I made a color card. You put all kinds of colors on the paper with crayons and overlay them with black, the thicker the better. Then you use the point side of a compass to etch designs. They come out in all different colors and in contrast to the black crayon overlay. I drew fish in the ocean and delicate, fern-like water plants. I also bought him the book version of “A Patch of Blue” and a mystery because Mama said he liked them.
I remember how thin–like a skeleton–he was under the sheet in his white gown. One of four in the room, he was the last one on the left, closest to the window. He had lost some hair at the top, but what he had was wavy and slick with grease. Sharp cheekbones, almond eyes and a gentle mouth… Glasses! No… Yes… I don’t remember.
The pain — the pain when he said, ‘You ought to use Nu-Nile on your hair. It’ll make it grow.’ And the sun had the nerve to be dancing into the room on shaft bars and dust motes.
His voice was whispery and hard to understand, but I understood what he was saying behind what he was saying: I was ugly.
All my thirteen years whenever people talked about my looks, they talked about my hair. It was growing. It had stopped growing. It was breaking off. All it meant, all of it was: you are ugly now, but if your hair would grow… but what if it never grew? I would be ugly forever. That’s how I felt when anyone said the least thing about my hair.
Did he know how much he hurt me?
Cancer of the esophagus. The doctor said cancer of the throat, but I asked him to say it in medical talk: carcinoma of the esophagus. Ephesus has carcinoma of the esophagus. Epheseus, esophagus. Sounds like one of those titles professors have after they names. Sounds real important, funny, too. But man, It ain’t funny at all.
He said he’d have to operate. I told him–over my dead body. Even he had to laugh with me on that one. His eyes told me what his mouth wouldn’t. The operation wouldn’t do a damn bit of good because it was already too late.
Too late. Too late for the late Epheseus. If it is so damn funny, why am I crying? Crying sounds too much like dying.
Two graveyards forked off the road. Bethel people were buried at Jefferson, the man at the gas station said. He was in the one to the left.
Rickety temporary markers that looked like license plates on stilts marked graves that didn’t have, or maybe never would have, gravestones. The few graves with gravestones had little stone pillows flush with the ground. A map with ‘numbers’ located a person’s ‘address.’ Just in case the marker was knocked down by wind, rain or a lawnmower.
I parked the car on the wide gravel path near the ‘entrance.’ No wrought iron gate, just a spilling of graves. If you took away the markers and gravestones, the rolling hills, the trees heavy with green and the May sunlight dappling through the leaves made this a good place to unpack your lunch. I found him on top of a knoll at the intersection of Cedar and Maple, breaking new ground.
Crouching in my white cotton pants I yelled: “Get up! I want to talk to you! I want to know why you left me. Why you never came to see me when all my life, you could have walked to where I was. You and Mama not getting along had nothing to do with me. Get up!” I thought I would be crying by now, but I was just angry. Pure, red anger. Still, I wasn’t expecting him to look like that.
The last time I’d seen him had been three weeks before he died. Now that he was dead, he still had all his skin, but it was stretched too tightly over sharp bones. His gray suit was not pale business gray or dark funereal gray, but gray with a sheen as if it had been wet by rain, but it hadn’t. That’s just the way it looked. An undershirt showed at the neck of his white, starch-stiff shirt. Considering he’d died at the start of a July heat spell that lasted two weeks without a let-up, I thought he was rather warmly dressed.
“What you staring at?” he demanded.
“I didn’t expect you to look like this.”
“You wanted white sheets, or clanking chains or moans and groans about Christmas past?”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“You’re the one that started in on how I look. You ought to stop letting those white folks’ movies fill your head. Like bad whiskey, mess up your mind.”
“Your voice is normal now.”
“Yes, normal as a dead man’s voice can be. Hope you didn’t call me up here for small talk. I’m no good at it. I’ve been told this might happen, but I didn’t expect a call till that ‘Great Gittin’ Up Mawnin.’”
He was half-sitting, half-leaning on the temporary marker which should not have held his weight but did. I couldn’t see through him.
“Judgment Day, Daughter. Surprised at you. Don’t know your spirituals, I guess.”
“From what I hear about you, you were not often in church that much yourself, unless the Sterling Bar and Grill qualifies as a house of worship. It’s kind of late to be getting religion, don’t you think?”
“Not religion, Daughter. There’s a slave here does nothing but sing all the old songs. Nothing to drink in this place. I have to get my entertainment somehow.”
I talk to Mr. Douglas and Miss Mary McLeod Bethune a lot, too. That’s Frederick Douglas and Mary McLeod Bethune. You’ve heard of them, I hope?”
“I can feel myself being pulled back. If you got a strong reason for calling me, you better come out with it or I won’t be here much longer.”
“Why didn’t you ever come to see me?”
“What good would that have done? I couldn’t feed you, why should I come see you with nothing in my hand to give you?”
“But I wanted to see you, needed to see you.”
“Did you? You wake up every morning saying, ‘I want to see my daddy?’”
“No, not then. I would have called you Papa if I called you anything, which I didn’t and don’t. I didn’t know I wanted to see you then. I thought: out of sight, out of mind. What you never had you can’t miss.”
“My feelings exactly. You didn’t remember when you was a baby, which is the only time we had dealings. So why get you all worked up and attached to me? I thought it was best.”
“Best for who?”
“I don’t think you were thinking about me, I think you just thought about your own convenience.”
“Convenience? Now that’s a word I never had much use for. Nothing was ever ‘convenient’ for me or ‘not convenient‘. I did what I had to do when I could, and when I couldn’t, I did what I could do. It’s a word for a man with one of those upholstered reclining chairs. I never had one, only rickety chairs that wouldn’t sit straight without being propped up, and they weren’t mine either.”
“I don’t feel sorry for you.”
“No, I guess not. You too busy feeling sorry for yourself, but I wasn’t trying to make you feel sorry for me. Just telling you how it was.”
“You don’t think what you did was wrong do you? You don’t think having a child and abandoning her was wrong do you?”
“Was it right to stay with you mother while she supported us all? Your mother protected you from a lot that was a part of my daily life. I’ll bet you never went hungry, or wondered how you were going to pay the rent, or sneaked out in the night with your few belongings so the landlady wouldn’t come down on you for not having it, or spent the night on the subways until you found a few quarters to get another cheap, dirty little room in some broken down rooming house or went from door to door asking if they had rooms to rent.”
“I’m not talking about jobs and rent. I didn’t care whether you could feed me or clothe me. I wanted your love.”
Silence for a minute. He looked at me as if I were the ghost.
“Love? Love! We had a saying back then, Daughter:
Without Finance there can be no Romance. That’s what killed what me and your mother had and that’s what made it impossible for me to see you. You think your mother would have welcomed me with open arms? ‘Tee Cora, I have nothing for the child. I can’t give her anything but love.’ I keep telling you, life is no white folks’ movie. I wouldn’t a done something like that cause I do have some sense–don’t
always use it–but I do have it. Your mother was a master of good sense. Only bad call she ever made was marrying me.”
“What did you want from me? I couldn’t give you love. I didn’t have a scrap from myself or anybody else, except from Lou. I couldn’t do anything for your young life so I gave you the best thing I could–my absence.
Anyway, you grown now. You must be all right. That blouse you wearing look like silk to me. You got a car, a college education. What was it I did to you that hurt your life so? What did I take from you?”
I went for his throat. “Why didn’t you love me? Why? Why?”
His hands were strong and definitely corporeal. He had height on me, but I had surprise. A crashing wave of sadness, loneliness and tears rushed over me. I couldn’t squeeze his thin, bony throat between my hands anymore.
He was coughing and rubbing his neck. Tears were coming out of his eyes, too but they were reaction tears. When he could speak again he said, “I’m already dead. You can’t make me any deader than I already am. Is that what you wanted to do? Is that what you called me for?”
“I wanted to hurt you the way you’d hurt me, but nothing I said to you was getting through. I’ve been angry and hurt for years without knowing why. I just wanted to aim it at the right target.”
“You hurt me all right. It’s worse than being alive, because you could have choked me for hours and the hurt would have just gotten worse. But I don’t think that’s the kind of hurt you’re talking about. I picked up a few words of Haitian French and a few of Mexican Spanish in the Navy, but what you’re saying sounds more strange to me than Turkish. Did you ever stop to think that maybe you were asking me for something I didn’t have?”
“You took pictures of me as a baby. Took me to a photo studio to take pictures of me — why?”
“You were my baby girl and I — I just wanted to show you off. The best way to do that, was to get a picture taken. Besides, I like pictures, always have.”
“It must’ve been a hassle — carrying a baby around. What if I threw up on you or did in my diaper?”
“If you needed your diaper changed, I changed you. If you gave up on me, I wiped it off. So?”
“If you took that much time and trouble with me as a baby when you didn’t have to, you must’ve loved me.”
“I have used a lot of four letter words in my time, but that was one I tried to stay away from.”
“It wasn’t just the word you stayed away from. You stayed away from someone who could have given it to you. Who might have been able to teach you how to love yourself.”
“Who? Your Mama?”
“Daughter, if this is what you call teaching me how to love myself,” he said, rubbing his neck, “I don’t think I want any more of your ‘teaching.’”
I laughed so hard, I started to cry again.
“Girl, you laugh so loud, you’d wake up the dead.”
We were both laughing and crying. I laughed until my stomach hurt. I fell to the ground on my knees, because I couldn’t stand up anymore. It was a while before either of us could speak.
“Daughter, let’s stop all this arguing and talk like two human beings.”
We walked to a stone bench under a tree and sat down. I told him how it felt not to have him there when I started missing him, how hurt and angry I was that he didn’t love me.
He talked of his life after he left us, looking for work, the drinking, Aunt Lou, how he felt about me. I was beginning to get a sense of him. He was a warm, humorous, loving, confused man. That hard rock of anger was slowly dissolving as I watched him. I saw the sadness in his tightening mouth as he told me how it felt to look for work, the laughter and the fire in his eyes as he mimicked Aunt Lou’s gestures and voice, acting out some of the ‘fights’ they had had about me.
I was starting to love my father, love the fine, long fingers of his hands that moved as he talked. Shaping with his hands as much as with his words, how it was, what he felt.
“… It was hard, looking for work and all, but I should let you know me. They make you feel like a man ain’t nothing unless he got money in his pocket.
But I see from my talks with the people here, that there’s more to a man than that. I done wrong. I done wrong and I am sorry for it…” He sat for a while looking at his hands. “You’re not angry with me any more are you, Daughter?” He looked at me warmly.
“No. No, I’m not,” I reached for his hand and squeezed it.
“I’ve done what I was called to do, then. I have to go back now.” He got up from the stone bench with me following.
I felt waves of warmth from this man who had held me on his lap for the cameras some twenty-six years ago…My father loved me.
We reached the grave. He held his hands out. Putting one on each of my shoulders, he kissed me gently on the forehead.
“Goodbye, Daughter.” He sat back on the marker as he’d been before: Half-leaning, half-sitting.
He waved at me.
I waved back. “Goodbye…Papa.”
Then…he was gone.