I was still stoned when I got back home that Saturday – the first Saturday we had a family dinner planned since I’d gotten my license the previous year. We, well, my mom planned this dinner to welcome my dad back from his first tour of duty as a trucker. I was late. And my mom told me so.
"He's not even back," I said.
"But what if he were back?" she asked. "He would think you don't care."
"He wouldn't think that," I said. "He's not like that."
My mom huffed. "I know what you're implying."
"Whatever," I said, like every teenage boy finding out he's not as slick as he thinks, and I turned away from the kitchen to climb the steps to my room.
"Aren't you hungry?" she asked.
"Not really," I said. I was starving. She had made our – me and my dad – favorite, mashed sweet potatoes. I could have shoveled the buttery, brown sugar velvet into my mouth by the ladleful and when my mouth was full, I would have smeared it over my face and let my pores suck it up. I stood at the top of the stairs looking down at her, saliva filling up my mouth. My stomach growled and gave me away.
"I made dinner for three," she said. "Get down here so I don't have to eat alone."
Guilt has always been my family's main motivation for togetherness.
The potatoes were delicious, but they didn't give me the energy to offer my mom anything back except grunts for conversation.
"Were you at Ryan's house?"
"Is he taking summer school again?"
"Is that it?"
"Does he like it?"
"I don't know."
"Aren't you friends?"
"Well, shouldn't you know what your friends like?"
"I don't know."
My mom sighed and stuck a fork into her food, but she didn't take a bite. She looked past me toward the window. I turned, too, but it wasn't my dad, just a flatbed truck using our driveway to change directions. My mom and I examined our plates.
Driving an 18-wheeler promised to take him from us three out of every four weeks, and to return him back on the 26th of every month. Not ideal, but he didn't have many options back then. He had been a machinist making car parts, but his plant closed down and in Michigan the blue-collar opportunities available to a Black man were narrowing, and we weren't making it on his unemployment and my mom’s bookkeeper income. The bank had started mentioning words like "foreclosure" and "bankruptcy," so my mom and dad decided him being on the road wouldn't be the worst thing. He got his CDL license and four weeks later had his first assignment.
For most of the three weeks my dad was gone, my mom and I did an impressive job of avoiding each other. Days were easy; she left an hour before I woke up for school and didn't get home till five. By that time, I was with my two best friends, hiding out in our old playground with the barbed wire fence in the neighborhood we used to live in, before my mom went back to school and got her degree and a promotion. We rolled spliffs and ran down the slide that was barely as long as our teenage legs. My mom would already be gone to a Jehovah's Witness meeting when I got hungry enough to go home and get food. We watched whatever show I wanted to watch and I tried to not laugh at any sex or drug jokes. Almost every night, she yawned after the headlines of the 11 o'clock news, and said, "I'ma be 'sleep before my head hits that pillow," and told me not to stay up late. I said OK and watched MTV till two in the morning while I did my homework.
But after that sweet potato dinner, my dad was still gone. She sat in the chaise lounge, and I squatted in front of the matching couch while the Home Shopping Network sparkled from the television set. Lucy, a kitten then, made herself into a donut on my dad's easy chair. My mom tried not to be obvious about it, but she looked out the window through the blinds whenever headlights exploded from the street. At 11 o'clock, she turned on the news, listened to the headlines, and I waited for her to tell me she was going to bed, but instead, she picked up a decorating magazine from the coffee table and started reading it while she rubbed her forehead. I concentrated on the news and sucked on the cuff of my sweatshirt.
The local news passed, and the world news report came on as the sound of rain turned our heads to the window; we didn't look at each other.
"Take your sleeve out of your mouth," my mom told me. "You always do that when you're nervous."
"I'm not nervous," I said. "It's just a habit."
She turned a page too quickly and half of it tore out. "A nervous habit."
I sat on my hands and Peter Jennings told me about the Republican race for the presidential nominee. The rain came down harder. "I'm going to bed," I announced and padded out of the family room as my mom called out her love for me.
I wandered down the hallway past the living room and turned the corner toward my room, but the bookcases made me pause. I pulled a book down from one of the shelves next to our fake fireplace – Nemesis, one of my dad's sci-fi pulp novels. A nightlight gave off a fuzzy glow that invited me to sit down in front of the bookshelves and look at a few words without bothering to make sense of them, while in the living room Peter Jennings turned into a saleswoman on QVC. Below the bookshelves were my parents' swollen junk drawers. My mom and dad, since I could remember, had put every piece of mail, letters, bills, every document that had ever been important or useful, mostly stuff they didn't know what to do with, but were not sure they could throw out. School pictures I didn't give to friends. Perfect attendance awards. Flimsy grade-school yearbooks. Half-empty photo albums buried by piles of loose pictures. I'd never seen them take anything out, although after I paid for a parking ticket, my mom put the receipt in there, and, as she struggled to shove it closed, said, "I have to go through this stuff one day."
As far as I could tell, I was the only one who looked through them.
The top drawer resisted as I tried to pull it open but gave in. The hallway light would have brought my mom in from the TV room, so I didn't bother searching for any particular photo, just blindly pulled out a random stack. The top one turned out to be the picture of me and my dad posing like muscle men on Daytona Beach from our vacation when I was seven. I could draw that picture, even today. My dad is bare-chested, with spotty, curlicued chest hair forming islands over his nipples, red shorts at least a hand above his knees, black racing stripes down the side, aviator sunglasses and the last remnants of his afro, springing barely two inches off his head. I've got on tiny blue and purple plaid shorts and my hair is dotted with droplets from the ocean, like I'm waterproof. Two seagulls in the background, the one on the left, forever in mid-flap. A chubby toddler to my left, way in the background, soggy chestnut ringlets, is pulling up her red bikini bottoms. A blond frat boy with a buzzcut like a silver toothbrush laughs at his friend who is out of frame who had tripped on his flip-flops and dropped a beer moments before the picture was taken.
I think that's what happened. I remember the photo better than the day.
My mom changed the channel to an infomercial about a juicer and I put the photographs back, crunched a few of them as I pushed the drawer closed and went to bed.
I tried to sleep, but for the next forty-five minutes, all I heard was the Home Shopping Network and sniffling.
"WE HAVE THESE FOR 15 MORE MINUTES AND THEN THEY'RE GONE FOLKS"
"CALL NOW OR THIS ITEM WON'T BE BACK TILL CHRISTMAS"
"YOU WILL BE KICKING YOURSELF LATER IF YOU DON'T GET IN ON THIS DEAL"
I had never seen them spend a night apart before, except when she took me to the Jehovah's Witness semiannual assemblies in South Bend. My dad went with us once. He had to shave his beard, the one he kept ever since he studied Islam, one of many paths he tooled around with in his twenties and thirties. In pictures of him I used to find in those junk drawers from back then, he always had a big beard and an afro, round like a basketball, too big to palm with two hands.
So he shaved his beard but still stood out. The Jehovah's Witness men wore their best suits over and over again to these assemblies and used their frayed belt loops and highwaters, their short sleeves hidden under suit jackets that strained to button closed, as signs of their denial of the secular world. My dad didn't have many suits, either, but his plumb-line pleats so sharp they made his cuffs into triangles, his thin, silk tie hanging off the neck of a cotton lavender shirt, his jacket stitched to move around his shoulders, gave him away as an outsider.
At break, he and I sat in the bleachers eating our bean burritos and drinking Shasta while my mom talked to a group of elders in the aisle. I was glad he had come because he was the one who had convinced my mom to let me wear my superman T-shirt under my dress shirt. I saw them turn to my dad, turn to each other and, as a group, target my dad. Before they got to him, he put down his plate, stood up and met them halfway, sticking out his hand, looking them in the eye, and said, "How ya doin? How ya doin?" He sat on the back of one of the chairs as they introduced themselves, inquired about his experience and began to proselytize about the importance of making a choice, of the rapid coming of the end of days. My dad nodded and as lunch was wrapping up, he stood and said, "I wanna thank you all for giving me so much to think about."
In the car on the way back to the hotel that evening, my mom squeezed my dad's hand and said, "Thank you for listening."
My dad stared ahead and said, "As long as that's all I have to do."
My mom took her hand back and twiddled her thumbs. Then she turned back to me and said, "You had a good time, didn't you, Brian?" I sucked on my sleeve and regarded my dress shoes with more interest than they deserved.
From my bed waiting for my dad to get back, I could hear my mom's crying cave to snoring. I put myself on extra tiptoe, made it past the bathroom, down the hallway and into the kitchen, only one room away. I watched her from the doorway and inch by inch became bold enough to sit on the floor right in front of her. I watched her sleep, illuminated by the TV's fluid, fickle light concealing, revealing.
I crawled to the couch and fell asleep there.
My eyes opened reflexively without waking the rest of me when my dad's headlights illuminated the family room. As he followed the driveway 'round back, the room lost its color, but a glow from the kitchen quickly followed. His engine hushed and the light dimmed. In the morning, his laugh, like wood on a chopping block, woke me up.
I walked into the sunlit kitchen where my dad was emphasizing a point by waving a knife around in the air.
"Be careful with that thing," my mom laughed. She was measuring flour. "Hand me the bigger measuring cup."
He opened the mahogany cupboard above him and peered into the crowded shelves where several mismatched sets of service for four, including the collectible ET glasses I used to get in Happy Meals at McDonald's. "Where is it?"
"It's up there," she said, while opening the drawer at her hip.
"No, I'm looking up here and it's not –”
"Oh, here it is," she said. "Keep going with your story."
"OK, right – hey, there 'e is!" he said, finally turning to me standing in the kitchen door sill.
"Welcome back," I said.
"Thanks," he said. "Glad to see you're dressed for breakfast."
I was still in the jeans and T-shirt I'd fallen asleep in. "Saves time in the morning to get dressed before you wake up."
My dad put his rough, sausage-fingered hand on my cheek and slapped it lightly. "Real genius, this kid."
I reached past him for a bowl and searched the pantry for cereal. I poured a bowl of mostly Cap'n Crunch and a little Fruity Pebbles dust, then sat down to listen to my dad regale us.
"I met a trucker who wasn't too much older than you, and he's been doing it since he was nineteen," he said. "His pop's a trucker, too. He told me he hoped his son would be a trucker one day, too. I asked him, 'What happens if you have a daughter?' He thought about it for a second and shrugged, ‘yeah, her, too, the whole family.'"
We all laughed and my mom said, "Maybe you can follow in your father's footsteps one day."
"Mom," I said, "you get nervous when I drive to the grocery store."
My dad and I laughed again and my mom smiled but squeezed her hands together and said, "You guys always make fun of me."
"Aww, Judith," my dad said, and slid his hand over hers, lifted them up to his face and kissed them.
We were together like that all week. At the end, my mom and I followed him back to the loading dock. He told me to take care of my mom.
She and I turned around in the car. "What are you gonna do today?"
I looked in the rearview mirror and could see my dad giving a thumbs-up sign to the men loading his truck. He shook hands with all of them and they all took the time to remove their work gloves. He walked into the building, rubbing his hands and laughing.
I put my cuff into my mouth and said, "I don't know. Can you drop me off at Ryan's?"
Wash-rinse-repeat like that every month till I left home a year later for Columbia University to get my very 21st-century degree, which means that ten years later, I now have a job where I work in an office, but I come in when I want with my shirt untucked, carrying a Manhattan Portage messenger bag. After I graduated, my parents sold the house I grew up in and headed south to Florida to practice retiring.
My dad still drove and my mom still waited up, watching the Home Shopping Network or the Home Improvement Network.
She did that for all those ten years until she was waiting for nothing because a meth head hit my dad’s fuel tank out on I-77, near exit 78, and everything just exploded.
We stayed at my mom’s sister’s house since I now lived in Brooklyn and mom and dad had moved to Florida in ‘04. Before we left for the service, inside my cousin’s old room, I dug into my bag to get the pot brownie I had brought with me. I made them with my sometimes girlfriend the night before back in BK. We had climbed onto my roof with a couple of tall boys to toast my dad, up in heaven. She said the roof wasn’t high enough and rolled us a joint. I wondered how I was going to get as high for the wake since I had no weed guy in Michigan anymore. So, we ordered a quarter and made brownies.
Not our best baking, I discovered in my cousin’s room. The brownie was dense and bitter, but I finished it, put on a good suit and stood on my aunt’s lawn to wait for my family. We had just missed the autumn leaves and hadn’t arrived in time for the first silent snowfall. At dusk, the trees were gray and dry, like tombstones, and my skull rippled as the brownie kicked in. By the time we got to the Kingdom Hall, the double stitching in my good suit was the only thing keeping my skin and bones connected.
The Hall was bright. I haven’t been to many churches, but none of them are ever as bright as they keep Kingdom Halls. Probably because most of them are renovated somethings – grocery stores, bowling alleys, restaurants. This one always reminded me of an insurance office because of its fluorescent lights, thin carpet with geometrical patterns covering concrete. Not the right lighting for crying, so everyone sat in the front row with round eyes floating in backed-up water while the elder who had known my dad spoke about the differences in faith, but the similarities in love. I liked that part. My dad would have, too. I looked at the carpet, relaxed my eyes and made the trapezoids drift and float, inhaled what must have been the same cheap perfume, overly applied to the wrist of every Jehovah’s Witness woman over fifty.
Weed separates everything and then puts it back together all weird. My brain thought everything was super relaxed, but then my mom whispered to me that she could hear me grinding my teeth. I tried to string together words to maybe say something about my dad, but they kept dropping and rolling away from me. I scrambled to gather them up, repeating four or five words that made sense, but the beginning of the phrase would be about my dad on the highway and then end with stuff about Michael Landon and his inoperable brain cancer, along with memories of making fun of my aunt with my cousins because she liked that piece-of-shit show so much. That memory made me giggle, but remembering where we were on our way to my dad’s funeral, I coughed, hoping everyone would think I was holding back tears so I wouldn’t have to explain why and how I was thinking about Highway to Heaven.
My mom made me drive to our old house after the wake. We sat in front of it for twenty minutes trying to see if their flowers were white marigolds, like we had, but everything was darker than it should have been.
“I wanna take a picture of you,” my mom said. “Get out in front of the house.”
I exhaled a short laugh. “Mom, that’s not our house anymore.”
“It’ll just take a second,” she said.
“Mom, that’s weird,” I said. I shivered from the air that blew in through the car door she had opened. “What if they come out? We’re Black.”
“They won’t,” she insisted, stepping a foot out of the car.
“Mom, get back in here.”
“Can’t you just do this little thing for me?” she said. “My husband just died.”
“My dad just died.”
“Why can’t you just be nice?” Her voice was at the top of her skull.
I sighed, filling the car with a cloud of cold breath and got out of the car. “Just one.”
I walked up the path to the house, the one that had been flanked by pink and white marigolds when we lived there and turned around just before the first step to the porch. “This is as far as I’m going,” I said and held my hands up. The flash hurt my eyes.
“Thank you,” she said and we both got back in the car. “You need to come help me down in Florida.”
On the way back to her sister’s place, snowflakes, tiny as pollen, started to fall; they melted into drops of water on the windshield.
Less than a year later, I’m on my way to fulfill my mom’s ask for help in Florida. I finish up the drive to my mom’s house on a day built inside a crayon box – more colors than you could ever possibly use. The layer of dirt that hangs over sidewalks and storefronts in Brooklyn is missing here. A layer of people, too. A layer of sound. In New York, it’s eight million people and their dogs, their cars and their bitch-ass attitudes. Here on the highway, it’s just wind hitting windshield, the wheels pressing blacktop, my heart not beating anymore, growling like the engine. I turned off the radio in South Carolina back on I-95.
The billboards begin on I-295. Sunbeam Valley Active Retirement Community. Sparkling River Active Retirement Community. Green Garden Active Retirement Community. twenty-five-feet-wide smiles that belong to white-haired senior citizens who have brushed and flossed daily. Five-feet-tall teeth. Having a full set of teeth is a sign of good health. I can infer these seniors – of diverse backgrounds – have the constitution to take advantage of the tennis courts and golf courses offered at these facilities. They like hiking, too, I bet.
My ACL saws a rope over my kneecap. I slide my seat back to let it breathe. Sweat glues my ass to the inside of my jeans and seeps through them onto the seat. It’s like I sat down on a toilet in a rest stop.
Or as if I’ve been wheeled around in a chair all day.
Like the folks in that other kind of retirement community. Caring Hands Assisted-living Retirement Community. Colony Club Sunrise Assisted-living Retirement Community. Emerald Park Assisted-living Retirement Community. One advertisement leaves out the “Assisted-living” part but look at the picture. One woman. A strand of gray hair fallen over her 25′ face. Smiling with closed lips, looking up at a headless, but surely kind nurse. She looks with eyes tucked away behind a million folds.
I think she’s one of those tennis-playing seniors under different lighting. I say goodbye to her, promise I’ll visit on the way back and merge onto I-75S toward “Florida’s Favorite Hometown,” the nickname for The Villages, Florida’s largest active retirement community, where the founders have dedicated their lives to building an environment where dreams can come true, where you will gather for a great time with friends and neighbors after hours, where you will discover a world of golf, where you will dine, where you will dance, where you will see movies, where you will fine-tune a lifelong passion, where you will try something you’ve always wanted to try, where you will just pick up where you left off as a kid, or so they say on their website, and from where my mom has to move since, according to their policy, at least one member of the household has to be fifty-five or older; my mom’s fifty-three, dad was sixty-two.
I wouldn’t have come down here if my mom hadn’t asked. After I got kicked out for smoking, I didn’t put too much practice into being a good son.
A few weeks after I got caught smoking as a teenager, my mom took my dad to the Kingdom Hall without me. It was the first time they attended since my excommunication. I knew my mother; she had been waiting till the gossip died down amongst the JWs so her shame wouldn’t be magnified by hungry inquiries about my state of mind.
“What are you gonna do?” my mom asked me.
I sat in the kitchen chair. There wasn’t enough room for a table in the kitchen, but my dad put a chair in front of the windows next to the washing machine because he liked to eat his morning oatmeal and banana and watch the sunrise before he went on his run. On Saturdays, by the time I woke up, it was after noon and I would come into the kitchen and find my mother sitting in that chair, glassy-eyed, staring at our clothes spinning around through the washing machine’s glass door. The washer and dryer were purchased in tandem along with the new house. Before that, we went to the laundromat.
Even though I couldn’t go to the meetings anymore, my mom didn’t let me sleep in because she was still trying to convince me that being disfellowshipped was a punishment.
“I’m gonna go to the library,” I told her.
“Oh,” she chirped. “How productive. Study hard.”
She hugged me goodbye, and my dad, carrying his jacket over his shoulder, raised his eyebrows at me and clapped me on the back. “Not too hard, though.”
“That’s true,” my mom said. “It is the Sabbath. Don’t work too hard.”
As they walked out to the garage, I heard my dad ask, “If it’s the Lord’s day, why are you making me rake the leaves?”
“Lewis!” my mom rebuked, sounding remarkably like Mary Tyler Moore for a Black woman.
Growing up, only fifteen minutes of walking separated our house and the public library. I used to treat it as my own personal hideout. If I had a bad day at school or at home, I would walk there without telling anybody. Eventually, the librarian would find me and say, “Your mother called. I think it’s time to go home.” It was a reverent atmosphere, dark from the tall bookshelves blocking out the light from the windows, but slates of light sneaked between the rows and lit up the floor. The librarians would shush you if your voice rose above a whisper. When I went there on that fall Sunday, I walked up to the children’s section in need of nostalgia to reminisce over and was disappointed to hear one of the librarians shouting to another about payroll or something. A mess of kids were allowed to run around the reading table, knocking over books and Legos without any reprimand. Nostalgia only feels good if it’s exactly the way you remember it. Otherwise, nostalgia is just a reminder that you’re getting old and that nothing will ever be how you remember and that it probably never was how you remember it in the first place. Without even looking at the Hardy Boys’ books, I left the kids’ section and went in search of what I came for: Religion.
The 200s are reserved for religion in the Dewey Decimal system. First, it’s just religion in general, then natural theology, followed by Christian topics: the Bible, Christian theology, Christian moral and devotional theology, Christian orders and local churches, Christian social theology, Christian church history, Christian denominations and sects. The final tenth of the religion section is devoted to other denominations: Greek and Roman, religions of Indic origin, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and other. In “other,” I found a copy of The Satanic Bible and considered bringing that home, but I guess I was a slightly better son back then.
The elders had told me it was important that I look within myself and examine what my faith was going to be, but other than knowing that Jehovah’s Witnessdom was not for me, I had never considered my belief in God. I assumed I believed in God because my parents did, but I hadn’t realized that I was allowed to question that assumption. I wanted to take what they had said seriously, but I think more than that I wanted to keep shaking up my mom. I found a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, the old school kind that the Hare Krishnas in Ann Arbor tried to sell you; the Tao Te Ching; and something called the Yoga Sutras. When my parents returned home, I was in the kitchen chair reading the Bhagavad Gita.
“What books did you get?” my mom asked.
“They’re on the counter,” I said. “I’m reading the Bhagavad Gita now. Pretty good.”
My mom opened her mouth and turned to my dad. He shrugged and said, “I’m gonna go change.”
She put her attention on me again. I pretended to read but hadn’t understood anything in that book. “Why are you doing this?” she asked. “You know these kinds of books are against Jehovah.”
“But the elders told me to look around a bit,” I said. “Remember?”
“I remember,” she said, coming up to me and snatching the book out of my hands. “But these kinds of books are not allowed in this house. If you want to read them, read them at the library.”
I stood up and leaned against the dryer. “But there’s a copy of Dad’s old Koran in those drawers in the hallway,” I said.
“What? I didn’t know that,” she said as my dad came in.
“Didn’t know what?” he asked. He had changed into his lounging clothes, yellow sweatpants and a V-neck undershirt.
“That you kept a copy of the Koran in this house,” she said. “That’s a false religion. It’s Satan’s work.”
At that moment, I wished I had brought home LeVey’s book so I could have pulled it out and said, “No. This is Satan’s work.” Bad, bad son.
My mom asked me, “Where is it?”
I walked past them into the hallway and retrieved it from underneath a mess of postcards and my school photos from the fifth grade. She took the book and all the library books and handed them to me. “Take these back and donate this to the library,” she said, tapping on Muhammed’s work.
“Judith,” my dad said. “That’s not yours to give away.”
“What do you care? You’re not Muslim.”
“I know,” he said, lifting the book from my arms. “Which means these are just words. I didn’t even know where this was, for Chr – for Pete’s sake.”
My dad was using his calm, monotone voice. After he used this voice, the discussion was over, whatever the discussion was.
My mom clickety-clacked out of the kitchen saying, “Fine. But I don’t want anybody coming in here with The Satanic Bible.”
Really, such a bad son.
My mom spent the rest of the afternoon in their room with the cat. This wasn’t unusual for a Sunday after she had gone to the meeting and out in service, but she always kept the door open. She didn’t this time. I wasted the rest of the day trying to make sense out of any of the books I’d gotten, but all I got was feeling. I didn’t know what any of that shit meant. I couldn’t have explained it, and I got stuck on the same sentences over and over, sometimes the same word.
Outside, our maple tree was naked, having taken its leaves off and left them on the ground for me and my dad to take care of. There was a story in the Yoga Sutras about a yogi who asked Shiva how many more lifetimes he’d have to go through till he got to enlightenment. Shiva told him, “Four more,” and the guy flipped out because he thought he’d already done enough work. Then another guy, Narada, ran into Shiva and asked about the same thing. Shiva said, “Do you see that tree? If you count all the leaves on that tree, that’s how many lives you have left till you join me and the other gods.” According to the Yoga Sutras, Narada breathed a sigh of relief and said, “That’s all? Thank goodness it’s not all the leaves on all the trees in the forest.” Telling myself this story, looking out at the leaves on the ground, comparing their number with how many were left on the tree, I thought, He doesn’t have far to go.
There’s no reincarnation in Jehovah’s Witness Land. They quote a scripture from their Bible – translated by a man who didn’t speak Greek or Latin – that says, “The dead are conscious of nothing.” No second chances. This is all you get. Good luck.
My dad’s slippers flopped into the kitchen. “It’s gonna get dark soon,” he said. “Let’s take care of the leaves.”
“How was the meeting?” I asked.
He made a “meh” face with his lips and nodded. “Lots of nice people.”
“How long have you had that Koran?” I asked.
“Since before you were born,” he said and then studied the sky as if his thoughts were up there. “Since before me and your mom was married.”
“Where’d you get it?”
He shrugged. “Bookstore. I think the one downtown.”
“Yeah, well, duh,” I said. “I mean, like, why’d you get it?”
“You remember my friend Rashad? The one who moved to Ann Arbor?” he asked. “He’s Muslim.”
“Did he want you to be Muslim?” I asked.
“I think he wanted to share what he was interested in at the time,” he answered.
“So he didn’t grow up Muslim?”
“Nah, his mom’s Baptist,” he said. “Rashad still does Christmas with his mom’s family.”
“How’d he get into Muslim-ness?”
“Islam,” my dad said. “It was the 70s. If you were a Black man back then, you had at least one friend that got turned onto it. Malcolm X and all them.”
“What’d you think?”
“They had some good things to say,” he told me. “Lots of nice people.”
When I went to bed that night, achy and warm from raking leaves, my dad’s Koran lay on my comforter. A sticky note attached to it read: “You can put this back in the hallway when you’re done.” I flipped through it.
The Overwhelming Calamity
88.1 Has not there come to you the news of the overwhelming calamity?
88.2 (Some) faces on that day shall be downcast,
88.3 Laboring, toiling,
88.4 Entering into burning fire,
88.5 Made to drink from a boiling spring.
88.6 They shall have no food but of thorns,
88.7 Which will neither fatten nor avail against hunger.
88.8 (Other) faces on that day shall be happy,
88.9 Well-pleased because of their striving,
88.10 In a lofty garden,
88.11 Wherein you shall not hear vain talk.
88.12 Therein is a fountain flowing,
88.13 Therein are thrones raised high,
88.14 And drinking-cups ready placed,
88.15 And cushions set in a row,
88.16 And carpets spread out.
I had dreams about my mom, dad and me eating breakfast. I was eating cereal, but when I tried to chew it, thorns tore open my mouth and throat.
I kept the Koran under my bed along with my porn for a couple weeks and put it back in the hallway without ever looking at it again.
Down in Florida now. Pulling up to my mom’s gate. Receiving confirmation to proceed.
Her new house wears a pink stucco dress. I see her flit in and out of view from the bay window; she doesn’t notice me. I’m early. As I take small steps up the stone-tile walkway, a small brown bird darts from the hyssop flowers. “Holy shit” escapes my lips before I remember my unsavory language won’t be tolerated. I ring the doorbell.
Her dry, gray hair surprises me; she used to dye it. Shiny sweat pushes from her pores and carries her glasses down to the end of her nose. I’m looking at my grandmother now. She beams, embraces me like she doesn’t want to be touched and leads me through the foyer into the living room. I recognize everything from the photos she emails me. The bamboo plant I got her for Mother’s Day. (She told me she was grateful, but I couldn’t do it again since it “went against Jehovah.” That was the year she got baptized.) The too-tall bar stools lined up at the counter that separates the kitchen from the living room. My dad’s leather chair, which somehow made the move from Michigan to Florida, awkwardly dressed up in a tan throw, the two cats, Lucy now joined by Moonbeam, spooning on the cushion. Even the dust sparkles. Still looks like a photograph.
I notice the smell of my jacket – weed and cigarettes.
“It looks so nice, Mom,” I say from the edge of the family room, not wanting her to smell me. “You’re like an interior designer.”
She chirps a short, girly giggle and flicks my compliment away with her hand. It’s likely she would have been a designer if her high school guidance counselor hadn’t told her she didn’t need to go to college. “They said that because I was Black.” Out of high school, she worked as a gal Friday for a boat dealership and climbed no higher than the position of bookkeeper. A hobby and craft store hired her when she and my dad relocated to Florida. Small, ceramic figurines of birds and flowers delicately detailed, color the house with green, blue, turquoise, evidence of my mother’s deferred talent.
She flies me around to each room – including “mine,” decorated with spelling bee medals and newspaper awards I won in high school, framed like diplomas. I leave my jacket in there and linger behind her like a television crew, recording the objects she shows me, the ones she thinks I will appreciate. I stand in the doorway to my mother’s room, and she tells me something about the wood on the headboard coming from a sustainable source – only she says “reliable” – and how she purchased vertical blinds because horizontal ones were too common.
“Not ‘common,'” she corrects herself. “Just everyone has those kinds.” She opens and closes the top dresser drawer of my dad’s old bureau – another immigrant from Michigan. The finish had long ago disintegrated and the top pull hung crooked. I want a chance to go through those drawers; I wonder if they were already empty.
“Come see the bathroom,” she says. She moves like a woman half her size and age, inflated by my presence.
On the way to the master bathroom, we pass two closets, one full of floral prints, wool and drop waists, the other empty, a display of pristine plaster of Paris. My mom slides a hanger back and forth in his old closet. “I think I’m gonna put your old books in here now that I’m not using it.”
“Those are kids’ books, Mom,” I say. “I’m not gonna read those again.”
“But you’ll want to give ’em to your kids,” she says.
“What kids?” I say, thumbing an acrylic blazer.
Gravity takes over her face for a few, heavy blinks and then relents. “Come see the sit-down shower.” Then she shows me the bathroom and its hot tub jets.
After making me soak my feet, she guides me to her garden, a 10′ by 15′ rectangle, one of many which divvy up the backyard property shared by her complex in The Villages. “If this had happened a few weeks later, I could have fed you tomatoes from here.”
“Do the Leahys have a garden?” I said, referring to the people she will be staying with till she finds a permanent place. Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Yes,” she said, “And I already told Sister Leahy I was gonna give her a green thumb.”
“Well, maybe I can come back later in the summer,” I say.
My mother claps her hands and pats my back. “That’d be wonderful.” I think of excuses.
I say, “Can we go back inside? It’s hot in the sun.”
We haven’t seen each other in almost a year, but she lets me lie down for a rest. “All that driving makes you tired,” she says. I wonder if my dad told her that.
When I wake up, she’s in the kitchen preheating the oven. She’s about to put in a couple of Hungry Man dinners.
“Mom, those things are really not good for you,” I tell her.
She drops the dinners on the kitchen counter and slumps, “Well, this is all I have in the house right now and the meeting is in a couple of hours.”
I am a Hungry Man, but I’ve had rest-stop food for the last twenty-four hours. “Let me go pick something up.”
“You’ll get lost or something,” she says, cutting slits in the plastic covers over the frozen brown meat and icy green beans with a butter knife.
“I can see the grocery store from the gate,” I say.
She tosses the knife in the kitchen sink, and the sound it makes sends Lucy running under the leather couch. “Sorry, Luce,” she says and turns back to me. “You’ll make us late to the meeting.”
“You were always late to the meetings.”
“I think you’re just trying to get out of going at all,” she says.
“I’m not,” I say.
I brought a suit, but I figured she would let me stay here if I said I thought I should start packing up. Oh, well. “I just want you to take care of yourself.”
She stood in the kitchen, holding a TV dinner in each hand looking like some kind of scale; the stove dinged. She pointed one of the dinners at me. “Don’t make us late.”
She lets me drive her SUV, which is a relief to my ass and my knee, but we only make it to the gate before I remember my wallet is still in my jacket. I walk in through the garage door, past the laundry room and into the kitchen where my mom is closing the oven door.
“Oh, Brian!” and she opens the oven door and then closes it again quickly.
I slide her keys onto the kitchen counter. “Forget it, Mom.” I think I might still be able to get out of the meeting if I can leverage her guilt.
“I’m sorry,” she says following me past the living room into my room. “I was worried about time. You know how I get.”
“No, you were worried about me not going with you to the meeting,” I say, ready for her to slump again and draw a circle in the ground with her big toe and sigh, then tell me, “I don’t wanna force you…”
Instead, she says, “Well, I have some reason to worry.”
She just flipped it on me. The guilt, I mean.
I grab her keys again and my jacket and tell her she can eat what she wants. “I’m gonna find my own dinner. I’ll be back in time.”
At the nearest bar and grill, I order the sunny sunshine state salad. Salty sunflower seeds. Wilted lettuce, ranch dressing that’s more like buttermilk and the line cook doesn’t wash his hands after he sneezes. But I’m back in time.
Time to take a shower even. I’m prepared to go to the meeting because I have a suit and a whole mess of weed. It’s sort of like I’m a spy with cyanide pills.
In the shower, like I did in our old house, I turn on the exhaust fan and smoke a couple of bowls full of skunky, but dry diesel. A couple breaths and my skin feels like static, like a digital waterfall is crackling down the front of my body. The atmosphere around me is sticky and overprotective, like a shield, like my mom. My skull’s a tin roof and the water tapping on it, sending out a Morse code that tells me nothing’s broken anymore, nothing’s broken, nothing’s torn, everything’s fine, everything’s very happening-for-a-reason, everything’s cool and it probably will be forever.
My mom knocks on the door. “We have to leave in ten minutes.”
I haven’t always been such a dick.
Before we were JWs, we celebrated Christmas and I liked giving presents as much as I liked getting them. Maybe it runs in the blood to be gullible regarding all things earnest, but I bought into the “’tis better to give than to receive” line they started rolling out after Halloween. I liked it when my dad ruffled my hair and said, “My man,” when I gave him a misshapen paper weight made in art class. And my mom always squeezed me till I couldn’t breathe after she got some macaroni-plastered piece of construction paper, also from art class.
So for the first Christmas that we weren’t celebrating, I pulled out my supplies: a book of construction paper, several rectangles of cardboard, a ruler, eight markers, eight colored pencils, a pair of scissors, a manual pencil sharpener, an Exacto knife, and a bottle of rubber cement. I found a bag of cotton balls under the bathroom sink. I wanted to make a model of our house like it would look during Christmas time, during the winter.
On a piece of blank newsprint, I sketched my plans. I decided that the house would be 10 inches long and 7 inches wide. The distance between the foundation to the tip of the roof would measure 9 inches. Using the Pythagorean theory, I figured out the sides of the roof would have to be 5.32 inches. Thus, I cut two pieces of cardboard 5 by 10 inches, two pieces measuring 5 by 7 and two pieces measuring 5.32 by 10. I cut out rectangles of construction paper a quarter of an inch less on all sides as their cardboard partners. On the beige construction paper, I drew thick lines with soft shading underneath them to represent the aluminum siding that encased our house, along with the bay window that emerged from the family room at the front of the house, the two windows in the living room, the tiny kitchen windows and the sliding glass doors that opened up to the backyard patio. Using the Exacto knife, I carved out the windows, then lay the construction paper over the corresponding piece of cardboard, marked the lines of the windows and cut them out of the cardboard as well. I drew shingles over the paper that would become the roof. When I was satisfied with the exterior, I made miniature versions of our furniture: a cardboard couch, a cardboard dinner table, cardboard beds, cardboard chairs. Then I made a cardboard family of four: stick-figure Mom, Dad, me and the cat we named Sylvester after the Looney Tunes character. I pasted two sheets of green construction paper to a piece of cardboard that would serve as the base and imitate the lawn. With a pencil, I drew the layout of the house and placed the cardboard renditions of my family and our stuff in the appropriate places. I attached three of the four walls to the platform. I divided the fourth wall into two pieces and fastened them in such a way that they could close and open so you could see what was inside. I closed those two pieces and attached the roof.
But the people inside looked bored and boring, so I got another idea. Very, very carefully, I loosened the cardboard base from the green construction paper and the house. I pulled the house up away from its foundation and removed the little cardboard family. From my supply of artsy stuff, I pulled out four pipe cleaners and rubbed off the furry part, so I was left with four barren wires. I attached each of these to the feet of the cardboard people and cat. In the construction paper, I cut out a few right angles that moved from one end of the house’s layout to the other. I slid the wire under the construction paper and attached one end to the feet of cardboard dad. Using the other end, I maneuvered him from his bedroom into the hallway into the kitchen and finally into the living room. I made floor patterns for my mom, me and the cat. Then, I held the four walls in place around my family and realized that if I put the roof over them, they would be in the dark. So apart came my Superman nightlight so that all that was left was a tiny, skinny light looking like an upside-down teardrop. In the wall adjacent to the back door, I cut out a hole big enough for the plug onto which the nightlight was affixed. I glued the nightlight to that wall so that the prongs of the outlet stuck out and then glued the whole package together. For the final touch, I unraveled some of the cotton balls and glued them around the house and the lawn, so it looked like it had just snowed.
My parents were in the family room watching a VHS of Ghostbusters because all the basic channels were showing Christmas episodes, even the reruns on Nick at Nite. That’s why they didn’t hear me rummaging in the closet. I found a small extension and carried it to my room. I dragged my nightstand close to the outlet, plugged the nightlight into the extension cord and the extension cord into the wall. My off-white walls reflected the light, tinged green from the construction paper lawn.
After tenderly hiding the house under my bed and shutting my door so the cat wouldn’t get in, I turned off my overhead light and went to bed. I was so excited for the next morning, my calves kept bouncing up and down like they were trying to figure out a way to run while I slept.
It was like every other Christmas morning the next day. I got out of bed as soon as it was even a little bit light and barreled into my parents’ bedroom. When I shook my mother’s shoulders, she rolled over and croaked, “We don’t celebrate Christmas anymore, button, remember?” Her hand crept out from underneath the covers to search out my head so she could ruffle my hair.
“But Santa came anyway,” I said, pulling on her hand and arm.
My dad sat up in bed on his forearms, naked from the waist up, kinks of hair dotted over his chest like beetles. “What’s wrong?”
My mom’s feet landed on the floor and slid into her slippers. “Nothing,” she said to him. “Brian’s just a little confused.”
I led them into the family room, where we had gone exactly a year ago, to find the usual tree with presents underneath. This year, I had closed the family room’s thick velvet drapes and plugged in the mini house underneath the mirror that hung over the TV so the light would be reflected there.
“Brian!” my mom squealed, squeezing my shoulders. I looked up at her, and I knew she was happy because she was smiling with her whole mouth wide open, which she didn’t always feel comfortable doing because the molar just behind her canine was missing back then. All her teeth are fixed now.
I scurried over to my creation to show them all of us inside and how we could all move around. My dad joined me, and he held his wire in between his enormous fingers, thick and brown like cigars. With the other hand, he clapped me on the back and said, “My man!”
I turned back to my mom and said, “Come do yours!”
She leaned against the door frame and twiddled her thumbs, watching them as she did. Her bushy hair hung down over her face. Her lips were closed now. “You guys,” she said. “We can’t do this now.”
My dad and I stopped and stared at her, waiting for further instruction. My dad cocked his head toward my mom. “Judie,” he started.
“No!” she said, tearing her hands away from one another and making fists. She punched down the air in front of her chest. “It’s blasphemous. This goes against Jehovah.”
“But,” my dad and I both said at the same time. I couldn’t think of any other words, but my dad kept going. “He didn’t make it because it was Christmas.”
“Now you’re lying!” she said. “He told us Santa brought it. Why don’t you guys get it? We can’t go against Jehovah.” Then she ran out and left me and my dad in the dark in the family room. He nodded at me and told me not to worry. A moment after I heard their bedroom door close, my mother started crying. I unplugged my model and bore it to my room where I proceeded to destroy it. I put on one sneaker and stomped it with my foot. The glass crunched like I was stepping onto cracked ice. I stomped again and again till the roof was in four pieces and till the walls stooped and bent like hunchbacks.
My parents didn’t hear any of this over the sobs of my mother, even though they were in the next room.
I put on the other sneaker and got a dustpan from the kitchen to sweep up the shards of glass. Then I shoved the aftermath under my bed and cried myself back to sleep.
I woke up because my dad opened the door to tell me my mom had gone to the Kingdom Hall. “She knows you put a lot of effort into your gift, so if you want, you can give it to us tomorrow morning.”
I got out of bed. Instead of running a marathon, my calves felt like they had atrophied during my two-hour nap. I took the flashlight from my desk and lifted the comforter to reveal what was underneath my bed. My dad bent down.
“Aw, buddy,” he said. He sat down on the floor next to me Indian style, with his back rounded, picking up fragments with his cigar fingers. “What are we gonna do?”
What we did was spend the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon putting back together what I’d killed. We were meticulous. We placed encyclopedias on the deformed, warped cardboard so it would lie flat again. We matched scraps together like jigsaw pieces. Before we reglued them together, we held up a magnifying glass to the tear so that the edges would form perfectly. My dad’s steady hands held each pair together till the glue had taken hold. We disassembled the nightlight from the kitchen and used it to illuminate the house.
“How did you know how to do this?” my dad asked, the way he would ask an adult, like he really wanted to know the answer, not just because he wanted to make me feel better about myself.
I shrugged my shoulders and unraveled more cotton. “I just figured it out.”
My dad tricked my mom into letting me stay up till midnight at which time I presented the two of them the newly made miniature house. She had never seen the original close up so all of the discrepancies that screamed at me went unheard for her. She kissed me on the head and tucked me in.
When they made the trek from Michigan to Florida, my mom called and told me that the miniature house had become a casualty in the move.
Her Kingdom Hall down here is more like a storefront than an office building, but all the people are the same – those short-sleeved men and fragrant women telling me I am the spitting image, my dad all over again, an apple very close to the tree. I am the same as last time, stoned, making the patterns in the floor swim, catching fragments of the sermon. The elder says, “The things of this world won’t last.” No shit.
When I’m stoned, I feel good about myself and right about my place in the world, so all I want to do is make other people feel the same. Which is why, now that the sermon has ended and we’re saying goodbye, why I’m going on a little too long to the elder about how he mentioned impermanence and that really touched me at a time like this. I’ve run out of things to say, so I’m just pumping his hand up and down and offering my thanks, then again, then again. He thanks me, and we go back and forth before he wonders aloud if I wouldn’t enjoy going door-to-door with my mother tomorrow.
I don’t think I brought enough weed to handle that.
I tell him it might be a possibility. My mom gasps and smiles. We hurry to the car when it starts to sprinkle.
It’s her own influence that makes me avoid proselytizing. When I was eight and we were still living at my grandmother’s, we were walking back there from the grocery store and two people dressed up like they’re going to church passed by us. My mom swung her purse from side to side and looked down. The man said, “Do you have a moment for us today?” but my mom just kept going. They didn’t look like the kind of people my mom usually ignored. I said, “That man wanted to talk to you.”
He smiled at me, but it was rectangular and horizontal, like he was opening his mouth up for the dentist instead of greeting strangers in a friendly way. He seems old to me because of the gray at his temples. The rest of his brown hair covers his entire head, but it’s so thin you can count the individual strands. They remind me of a wheat field, like the one in the pictures of the farm my dead grandfather used to work on. As he approaches me and my mom, he walks with pigeon toes and turned-in knees.
He also had a name tag that said “Paul Nelson, Church of Latter-day Saints.” I remembered the commercials that were on TV showing people doing kind things to other people. He said, “This might sound like a strange question, but did you take a shopping list with you to the grocery store?”
In order to look at the man directly, she had to shield her eyes from the early afternoon sun. The heat had dotted the hollow of my mom’s neck with beads of sweat. She squinted as she wiped them away. “Yes,” she said. I thought it was a stupid question.
Mr. Nelson smiled his angular smile and asked, “And why is that?”
“Why is what?” my mom asked. “Why did I take a list with me? So I wouldn’t forget anything.”
“Right, you planned ahead, right?” he said. His soft cheeks droop down and form deep lines around his mouth so that his lips are tied up in parentheses. He has shaved recently, poorly. There are small dots of dried blood under his chin that probably only I can see because of my low point of view. When he talks, his Adam’s apple bounces up and down like he’s trying to remove a jawbreaker from his throat. A yellowish-brown band of sweat runs around the inside of his collar which makes me think of the Wisk commercial. His shirt could fit in easily with the ones that get sold at Meijer’s, the enormous supermarket out by the highway. Sweat has darkened the armpits. His belt holds onto a fistful of unnecessary fabric on the waistband of his oversized khaki pants. They’re oversized for his waist, but the cuffs only skim his ankles, and I can see a hole in his white, athletic socks, worn underneath gray dress shoes.
My mom wiped her brow. The baby hairs at her temples curled in the humidity so thick you felt like you got trapped in a steamer. “Yes, of course.”
“Well, what would you say if I told you a very important man has a plan for you?” he said, gesturing toward my mother with his black briefcase. “A man who knows all the answers and who can help you solve all your problems?”
My eyebrows lifted and I gasped a little. My mom put her hand on my shoulder and drew me closer to her, but I had caught the attention of the woman who appears to be much younger, probably my mom’s age, a little over thirty. Even though the sun is shining so hard I’m already sweating after just two blocks, this woman is wearing a blazer and a matching acrylic skirt, both a shade that clashes with her walking partner’s shoes. She’s a white woman with pale, pink cheeks. Her stockings could have been borrowed from my mother, though, as dark a hue of brown as they are. She’s wearing walking shoes, too, but they must have been walked in a lot more than my mom’s have been. The leather over her big toes is stretched close to ripping open and the inner heels are worn down to a nub. She stooped down toward me and pulled a small sucker out of her bag. It was root beer-flavored, my favorite.
My mom turned us both around as she said, “Thank you, but we already have our own religion.” The woman made like she was going to speak, but my mom cut her off. “And I don’t like for him to have candy before lunch.”
I walked with my mom without protest but turned back, like Lot’s wife, and the two of them waved goodbye. Since I was holding the shopping bag with both hands, I couldn’t wave back.
Back at my mom’s place. I’m sitting in my room in the middle of my old stuff. My mom has said goodnight already and told me we’d start right in together in the morning before we go door-to-door, but I can’t sleep.
I haven’t tried; I remind myself of my dad now, on Sunday mornings after the meetings with my mom – still in my dress socks and pants – unzipped – one sleeve on my undershirt rolled up. Lucy comes up to lick a toe poking through a hole in my sock. Moonbeam still hangs back trying to figure out who I am.
I open the window and turn on the fan so I can smoke a little. The bed spins me to sleep, still in my Kingdom Hall clothes.
I wake up as heavy as a hangover the next morning to shuffling and fwapping sounds. I sludge into my mom’s living room where she sits on the couch with empty boxes in front of her, surrounded by the regurgitated contents of the junk drawers from our old house, as well as piles of my dad’s clothes.
I sit next to her. “How can I help?”
She shuffles a stack of photographs into one rectangle. “Well, if you want to go door-to-door with me, you’ll have to take a shower soon,” she said.
I reach for a green file folder, spin it around in my hands and let my lungs empty themselves of an aggressive sigh. Slumped forward, I can see her face turn toward me out of the corner of my eye, waiting for me to face her, but she got impatient.
“I don’t wanna force you,” she starts.
I spring upright. ”No, it’s just my knee, y’know.”
She smiles and opens her arms. “Well, we’re just going to the old folks’ home today. There won’t be any walking,” she says and makes a little drumroll on my knee.
This time, a little noise caught itself in my throat as I sigh so it sounds like a groan. “It’s just…” I lean back on the couch to finish my thought.
She lightly smacks her palm with the stack of photos she’s been sorting and nods her whole torso back and forth. Her rhythm stops when Lucy jumps up to the base of her bamboo plant and noses around in its leaves. My mom makes a kissy sound at the same time I say, “Luce, stop!” The cat, its lids and ears pulled back tight, one paw suspended in the air, stares at us and then shoots off into my mom’s room.
“She misses Daddy,” my mom says. I slide off the couch’s smooth white leather down to the blanket of carpet and pick up several books and files of old bills only to set them down where they had been before I tried to be useful. Underneath the Webster’s Dictionary, I find a copy of my dad’s old Koran. I flip it open and read to myself, “And of His Signs is that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find peace of mind in them, and He put between you love and compassion.”
An indignant hmph comes from behind me and my mom says, “It’s just that you seemed so inspired at the meeting last night.”
This time I groan on purpose and say, “I was, but –” But that’s because I was so stoned, I thought my eyes were going to shake themselves out of my head. I hold my breath to keep my confession from breaking the surface.
I exhale. Lucy, looking left and right, comes out from behind my mom’s door and creeps serpentine-like through my dad’s old stuff, sniffs my feet and tries to sit next to me. With one scoop of my left hand, I haul her off me, saying, “Not now.”
“Be nice, Brian.”
“Sorry.” I rest my head on my knees, folded to my chest. The truth tries to come out of me like smoke, makes my breath thick and rugged rough, bloats and panics my heart inside my ribs. I hold my breath and suck on the cuff on my shirt.
“Brian, you still have that habit? Stop.”
I breathe out again and crack my knuckles.
I say, “I’m sorry, but I was stoned last night, Mom.” I look up at her and see her staring straight ahead with her lips sucked in. Her head shakes, and she stands up to collect ragged bits of paper, moth-eaten shirts for the garbage pile. I’m glad to have just the ten feet of distance between the couch and the dining room. She manages to stomp back to me even though she wears slippers and the carpet was at least three inches thick. Looking into me, she takes the Koran from me and says, “How. old. are. you,” and moving toward the trash, “thatyoustillsmokethatstuff?”
I stretch my arm toward her and spill out, “Mom, you can’t throw that away, it’s like the Bible.”
“We’re not Muslim,” she says.
“I know, just out of respect.”
“When are you going to have respect for me, Brian?”
I heave myself to standing and walk to her. “OK. I’m sorry. I’ll take a shower and we’ll go to the old folks’ home together.”
“No, that’s where you smoke your weed,” she says. “I remember from our old house.” I stop. She heads to throw out my dad’s Koran.
“Mom, please, don’t do that. I’ll take it,” I say and hold the book between my palms. She won’t let go, so I snatch it out of her hands and press it to my tight chest. She stumbles slightly and starts to cry and she claws at the book, at me.
“Stop it,” she says. Her voice screeches in my ear. I let go as she’s in the act of pulling. My dad’s Koran crashes into the bamboo plant I gave my mother, knocks it to the floor, litters the cream carpet with dark, damp soil. Lucy attacks the plant with liberated fervor.
“No, Luce,” I say. She shoots into the bathroom.
“Look what I did,” my mom wails.
I clutch the Koran. “It was my fault. I should have listened to you.” I put down the book and kneel down to pick up the pieces of the broken vase.
“No.” She stops me. “I’ll clean it up. You won’t do it right.” From my position on the floor, she looms enormously, violently focused, like a vulture discovering prey. I shrink into my room. When I hear her car start, I slump back into the living room alone. Not even Lucy wants to hang out with me.
His old Koran is in my hands. I flip it open and something stiff inside opens a page for me. It’s a picture of my dad posed in front of our old house, all wrinkled like it’s been crumpled up and smoothed out again. I’ve never memorized this picture before. Does my mom know this is in here? How long has this been in here waiting for me to remember it?
I close the book. My eyes are hot.
That expression “I’m glad your father’s not alive to see you like this” comes to my mind. I’m a fuck-up, pothead, deadbeat, half-orphaned failure. Fuck me.
I open the book again to begin remembering this memento.
It must have been taken when they first moved in – he looks so young. He looks like me. All the JW ladies are right. But I look closer and then I see my mother’s chin in my dad’s face.
Fuck, that’s me. The picture she took of me the night of the wake – my hands held up, scared the neighbors will call the cops, and urging her to finish.
Why can’t I ever just be nice?
A breeze from the lanai brings me back to Florida. I see my mom’s green tomatoes and wish they were ripe, red, juicy, wish I were sprinkling them with salt and stuffing them into my mouth, biting them open like apples.
I only brought the one change of nice clothes, so after a shower, the best I can do is a clean T-shirt that says, “Camping is In-Tents,” and a sweatshirt that doesn’t smell like schwag.
I left the house with the old folks’ home’s address, and not much more plan than that. I arrive and leave my car in the parking lot with a beat-up Oldsmobile and a snobby, brand-new Lexus.
The faded brick building looks like some kind of monster, two floor-to-ceiling windows on the top floor like eyes staring down on me and a set of revolving doors on the first floor like a mouth ready to devour me. I walk right in.
On the reception kiosk, two vases of crispy flowers practically beg to have their water changed. But who will hear them, surrounded as they are, in the midst of precarious stakes of papers, FedEx boxes, three sets of in/out boxes, one for each of the receptionists – nurses? A heavy Black woman with a smoker’s laugh and tiny afro the color of a manatee’s skin leads the other two: an older white woman with white roots shining under stiff, dull black hair and a Latino kid, blond highlights, little diamond nose ring, maybe eighteen, rainbow flag button pinned to his shirt. The Black woman takes a phone call and transfers the caller over to the kid, who while smiling and saying, “Hola, Sra. Sanchez,” gives his boss the middle finger. She turns to the white woman and says, “That’s why I don’t speak Spanish,” and they laugh together as the boy rolls his eyes at the voice on the phone and scratches notes on a piece of scrap paper.
Still, laughing, the boss catches me standing with my hands behind my back, but I pull out my cell phone, hold up one finger toward the employees of the facility and pretend to take a phone call. I look down at the floor, the kind they have in high schools, harder than concrete with shards of flattened rock trapped underneath, silver lines dividing the floor into rectangles. Muttering “Mm-mmm, mm-hmm, yeah,” I walk on the lines, like a tightrope, the way kids do. The tightrope leads me to a room off to the right. Some kind of rec room, double-doors, cafeteria-style, with those long, metal bars that push, but don’t pull. They are both open and reveal a sparsely populated set of long tables. Five senior citizens lean over the tables where they work on designing something using red glitter and white ribbon and blue construction paper. Presumably for the Fourth of July. Four of the artists are women. They all wear robes over floral-printed housecoats. Except one. One woman is saucy enough to show her fat, wrinkly triceps that hung on her bones like wet cotton sheets over a clothesline. This one sits next to the only man who has fallen asleep. The minx reaches over him with glue, glitter and ribbon to assemble his flag for him.
“He go’n know you done that for him,” one of the more conservative women says.
“Not if nobody tell him, nobody tell him, OK?” she says, mouth open and smiling and – God – toothless, her pink tongue obscene and swollen.
I understand why the parking lot was so empty. Who could stand all that sweetness, all that helplessness, all the sweet helplessness, all that helpless sweetness, all that love, all that impotent love?
Use protection, lady, I think. My imaginary friend still talks on the other end of my cell phone. The Latino nods, like he’s trying to tell me he knows I’m faking. Punk. How many children don’t even make it past the door? It’s not like that with me, I want him to understand. He doesn’t get a smile back as I look to the left, another big room, this one carpeted, with round tables, puce to match the awning outside, a vase on every table, fake flowers in every vase.
An old woman’s voice in that room gets louder and phlegmier and erupts into a coughing fit, which allows her child – the Lexus owner, I am sure – to say, “See, Mom. This is what happens when we disagree.”
I now try to return the Latino kid’s eyes, try to give him a look that says, “That’s not me. I’m a good son. I’m not afraid of being here, where the desperate smell of Pine-Sol and potpourri attempt to cover the smell of old people and desperation.
But I don’t know what that kind of face would look like.
I glance back at the visitors’ room.
There’s my mom at a round table with another Jehovah’s witness-looking woman and two residents, Bibles and study books opened, encouraging one of the old ladies to read one more paragraph. I walk toward them and cough. My mom looks up, holds her chin out at me and then hugs her shoulders to her ears and beams. She nods to her Bible study friends and walks softly to me carried by the rubber soles of her flats.
“Hi, Brian,” she says, patting me on the arm and waving to the reception desk – she mouths: my son. “Do you want to join me with Mrs. Behrman? She’s the last one.”
She doesn’t see that I didn’t answer, just goes back to her table and her friend and her students. All of them turn toward me and wave saggy-skinned fingers. She gathers her Bible and study guides, along with one copy each of “Awake!” and “The Watchtower,” holds them to her chest and breezes past me saying, “Down at the end here.”
Isn’t she wondering what I was doing here? I follow quickly, but quietly.
“Mrs. Behrman is really interested in Bible study – she used to be Jewish – but she had a stroke a few months back and now she can’t come down to the visitors’ room,” my mom explains as we walk the long corridor, shiny floors reflecting the light of the sun from the courtyard. It’s like a dorm someone let their grandmother decorate. We arrive at the end of the hall, and my mom knocks on a door covered in old and new photos of people who all look alike. Through the door and mucus, a voice tells us to come in.
“Oh, Mrs. Behrman,” my mom says, holding out her arms to the windows, “why didn’t you have one of the attendants come let some fresh air in?”
Mrs. Behrman – another blob of a body in a housedress and a robe covered by a blanket and comforter – presses her hands down on her bed to sit herself up. “I don’t like to bother those kids. They already work so hard.”
She could have bothered, I think. The smell of whatever had been in there since the last time the door opened – sweat, gas, shit, air freshener, peanut butter? – is still trapped and mingling, consuming all things clean. I put on my New York nose, stepping just past the doorsill into the room where my mother was throwing back curtains to open windows. The heat’s stuck in there, too. I look at the thermostat. 76.
Mrs. Behrman sees me looking. “I know it shouldn’t be up that high, sweetie, you can turn it down if you want.”
My hands go into my pockets and I shake my head which turns my eyes to look at the floor.
“This is my son, Mrs. Behrman, Brian,” my mom introduces us, as she approaches the old lady’s bed to pull back the covers. “Are you decent?” They both giggle while working on getting Mrs. Behrman out of bed and talking about how much I look like my father, especially now with my mustache. She leans into my mother, who I am surprised can help carry the old woman over to another one of those puce-colored round tables. It is by the window.
“Brian,” my mom says after both her and Mrs. Behrman’s Bibles are opened. “Pick up that phone and when someone answers, ask for a change of bedding for Mrs. Behrman.”
After I obey, my mother motions for me to join them at the table. “Brian, would you like to read today?”
I try to use my chair as a hiding place. “I think I’ll just listen today.”
“Listening very important, mm-hmm,” Mrs. Behrman says. “Listening very important.” She smiles, making the side effects of the stroke apparent. Both eyes smile; only the right side of her mouth joins them.
My mom smiles, too, and nods, and the Bible study begins.
It’s possible to look like you’re listening and not really be if you hold still and count your breath, so that is what I do instead of listening.
I watch, though.
My mom staring at Mrs. Behrman as the old Jewish lady uses the long edge of a bookmark to guide her through the verses and rubbing her back when the student coughs or hesitates over a word.
Mrs. Behrman’s short hair, each curl poofed like a cotton ball and shiny like a dime. She pats the side of her neck when she stumbles or when she gets an answer wrong, and then stops and pats her head instead, as if long hair once came down past her shoulders, hair she learned to twirl when she was embarrassed. Her tortoise-shell glasses, thick as a countertop, her right eye squinting anyway, her left, soft, blue and kind, like I remember the ocean at Daytona Beach.
White curtains caressed by wind, nudged by the wind, fluttering, then lift like a little girl’s skirt, revealing a thick green lawn dotted with white flowers.
My mother, turning a page in her Bible, thin, crisp papers that roll a joint better than Bambu, crisp papers whose roughness I remember between my fingers, raised ink over translucent paper. I hear my mother reading that ascendant, transcendent ink. I bite into the cuff of my sweatshirt and chew and swallow and sniff and swallow. I bite harder, sucking out smoke and sweat, sawing apart tightly woven fabric with my teeth. I bite a hole through my cuff and tear it wide with the tip of my tongue. There is still the sound of my mother’s voice and then there is the weight of her hand squeezing my knee, patting my thigh. I keep it there with my other hand. Her palm, damp and mushy and fat, the back of her hand dry and smooth like baby powder.
My mother closes her Bible and Mrs. Behrman claps her hands together. “Beautiful,” she says. “Your voice is like singing, just like a bird singing.”
My mom pulls out Mrs. Behrman’s chair. I come around to the lady’s side and give her my arm so she can pull her legs to standing. She leans into me as I guide her back to bed. An attendant had visited to replace the sheets during our study and I inhale soapy-smelling fabric softener. “It was very nice to meet you, Brian,” she says. She takes my hands in hers, old-person hands, wrinkles like fat frozen waves dotted with the algae of liver spots. They cool me down.
Later that evening, we don’t talk about any of it, but I let her make me dinner while I try to get Lucy to play with me.
After dinner, still none of my dad’s stuff is boxed up, but we watch TV anyway. Lucy bounces from my mom’s lap to get pets, and then to my feet to bite my ankles. My mom mutes the volume on a commercial with the clicker and pulls back the curtain to watch a car drive past her house. I push the TV tray away and hoist the shy kitten onto my lap, and everything is fine. Yeah, yeah, it’s fine, it’s OK, it’s cool, and it probably will be for a while, maybe forever, but I do wish we were waiting for my dad to come home.