Menu

Essay

WHEN MY FATHER’S PEOPLE came down from the Appalachians to work in the mills and mines of north Alabama, they brought with them a desire for strong drink, loose women, and visitations by the Holy Ghost. A census taker who interviewed some of these Covingtons noted that they were illiterate, and then also checked the box for “deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic.” But it was my grandfather on my mother’s side, an ill-tempered railroad detective named Charlie Russell, who kept another woman in Chattanooga and wound up dying of syphilis at the Alabama state mental hospital. I suppose it could be said that desire killed him.

Given that sad history, it’s no wonder my mother wanted me to become a doctor and was so disappointed when I didn’t. But late in life, after her own dementia set in, she called to tell me how proud she was that I had at least become a dentist. Then she asked for an appointment to have her teeth cleaned. I thanked her but said I’d need to get back to her about the appointment. She’d confused my name, Dennis, with the word dentist, and I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

Mother’s desire on my behalf was more than just a wish or a hope, though. All along, she’d had faith that I’d make something of myself. And faith, the author of Hebrews tells us, is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Maybe I am a dentist and haven’t accepted my calling yet.

At any rate, faith and desire seem to me to be two sides of the same coin. So if faith is the substance of things hoped for, what’s desire the substance of? It’s a question that defies simple answers.

“Be careful what you wish for,” we tell each other.

But with desire, do we really have a choice?

§

On a Friday night in September of 1963, I was fourteen years old and sitting on a band bus in Birmingham, Alabama, after one of our high school football games. A girl named Connie Bieker, a pretty clarinetist who would later become a majorette, sat a few rows ahead of me. She had taken off her band uniform coat and was sticking her arm out the window. The night had been hot, and the bus wasn’t air conditioned. Up ahead there seemed to be a traffic jam. When the bus slowed to a stop, a black youth ran up to the window and slashed Connie’s arm with a razor or knife. Hers was not a serious injury, but I still remember the vivid contrast of blood against the sleeve of her white button-down. I remember the rush of desire I felt while looking at that.

The next morning, a young woman named Elizabeth Hood stopped by the Birmingham home of her uncle, Robert Chambliss, a Klansman with a history of racial violence. She told him about the incident on the band bus, the white girl stabbed by a black teenager. She’d read about it in the paper. Chambliss flew into a rage. He told his niece to wait until Sunday. He said he had enough “stuff” to flatten half of Birmingham.

And that Sunday morning, one of Chambliss’s sisters-in-law called her boyfriend, a local sheriff’s deputy, and asked him to meet her at their usual rendezvous spot on the outskirts of the city. When the deputy arrived at 8:30, she told him a bomb had been planted at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church downtown. About two hours later, at 10:22 to be exact, that bomb exploded, killing four black girls who had just arrived for Sunday school. Three of the girls were fourteen years old. Denise McNair, the youngest, was eleven. The sheriff’s deputy had been on his way to the church when it happened.

“In those days,” he said, many years later, “there were false alarms every time I turned around.”

But why had the deputy waited nearly two hours before he got into his car and headed for the church? He said it was a “personal thing” between him and the woman informant.

Saint Gregory has warned us that there are holy desires and unholy desires. What makes us think we know the difference?

§

Last summer, for instance, I visited the Dominican Republic in order to get my Spanish back up to speed. My host family, a woman named Rósula and her four daughters, were more than willing to help. Rósula spoke no English, and although her daughters did to varying degrees, they promised not to on my account. The family’s home was in a quiet neighborhood of Santiago de los Caballeros, a city much like the Birmingham of my childhood, except for the courtyards with mango and orange trees; the butterfly orchids that bloomed from the courtyard walls; and the family’s outdoor parrot Juanita, who shouted ¡Qué rico! when I walked outside to watch the sun rise over the buildings downtown.

Rósula hand-washed all of my clothes, hung them in the courtyard to dry, and prepared delicious meals—plantains, fresh fruit, beans and rice, Creole chicken, seafood stews—more food than I could ever eat, and each meal accompanied by a tropical fruit drink: pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, or tamarind.

A devout Roman Catholic, Rósula also offered me nourishment of a spiritual kind. She taught me to recite the traditional blessing in which God is asked to give “bread to the one who has hunger, and a thirst for justice to those of us who have the bread.” She took me to a concert by Sister Glenda, the singing Peruvian nun, and shared her morning devotionals with me from the Spanish edition of The Upper Room. When she asked one day what my favorite chapter of the New Testament was—other than the Gospels, of course—I said Hebrews 11, and she recited that first verse about faith, the “substance of things hoped for.” Then she added that her favorite chapter was First John 4, the one about love.

Have I mentioned that Rósula was also a dentist? Her office, with its drill and reclining chair, adjoined the living room, and occasionally when I came home from my Spanish lessons, the office door would be open, a patient laid out in the chair, and Rósula’s drill could be heard whining over the sound of the soap opera her daughters were watching while Chula, the indoor parrot, ruffled its feathered neck, and the family’s teacup Chihuahua, Lily, dressed in a dog’s ballerina costume, snoozed in one of the girls’ laps.

I had two grown daughters myself. Raising them with their mother had been the happiest time of my life. But I’d never been in a house quite like Rósula’s, or with a family quite like hers. I started to think I’d stumbled into paradise. And when she emerged from the dental office in her blue tunic and surgical mask, I couldn’t help but feel the stirrings of desire, that long ancestral urge toward what we know we cannot have.

The only desire that lasts, my daughter Laura tells me, is the desire for the unattainable. For truth, as Plato would say. Or for God, Laura adds.

§

I soon learned that the Dominican Republic, like the South I grew up in, was a landscape haunted by race. In 1937, the dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the massacre of thousands of black Haitians who had dared to settle there. Trujillo was obsessed with “whitening” the country’s population, and even today, although the vast majority of Dominicans come from a mixed racial heritage, one can still find skin-whitening creams on the shelves of Santiago pharmaceutical aisles. In addition to the Spanish words blanco and negro, Dominicans employ a host of other terms to distinguish the intervening shades.

Rósula, for instance, had been the darkest of ten children. And as I found out at a family wedding in the mountain village of Jarabacoa, her siblings still called her by her childhood nickname: Morena, the dark one. The photograph of Rósula at the age of twelve, on the wall of her parents’ living room in Jarabacoa, reminded me of the happy photos I’d once seen of Denise McNair, the eleven-year-old killed in the Birmingham church bombing. Photos after the bombing were not so easy to look at. They showed Denise stretched out on a coroner’s table, a shard of concrete wedged into her brain. It’s been nearly fifty years since that awful September morning, but the pertinent facts remain. A desire born of hate and aimed at revenge killed Denise McNair and the other girls. But their deaths could have been prevented were it not for desire of another kind.

When I think of Robert Chambliss, I think of my boyhood Sunday school teacher, who boasted that he was a member of the Klan. I think of my lawyer cousin, Fred Blanton, who helped represent the Klansmen accused of murdering civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo. I think of the Klansmen who picked up a black man near my neighborhood in 1957, took him into the woods and castrated him, pouring turpentine on the open wound before they left him, barely alive, in the trunk of an abandoned car. I think of that newspaper photograph from the Birmingham Trailways bus station on Mother’s Day, 1961, the photo of angular white men in shirtsleeves beating black and white Freedom Riders with iron pipes. I was in the sixth grade at the time, and I was shocked when I recognized, if not the men themselves, then the thing I saw in their faces: the spite and bitter hunger of those poverty-stricken southern whites who’d come down from the mountains. I suspected even then that I might be one of them.

“You cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln once said.

But what about desire? Can you ever escape that?

§

The name of each of Rósula’s daughters began with an E: Evelina, Evelyn, Elisa, and Emely. During the terrible reign of Trujillo, there were four other Dominican sisters, the Mirabals, who came of age not far from Santiago. Like Rósula’s daughters, they went to Mass and grew up loved and safe. But the Benefactor, as Trujillo called himself, was accustomed to taking young women away from their families to be his concubines. During a ceremonial ball, Minerva Mirabal slapped him when he pressed his groin up against hers. And later, when the sisters became active in the movement to overthrow Trujillo, he ordered the arrest of Minerva and her youngest sister, María Teresa. They were tortured and eventually released, but Trujillo’s thugs later ambushed them and their sister Patria on a lonely mountain road and beat them to death.

Throughout their public dissent, the Mirabal sisters had been referred to clandestinely as Las Mariposas, the Butterflies, and as word spread of their deaths, images of butterflies—on posters, banners, factory walls—became a means of silent protest against the regime. “Long live the Butterflies!” the protestors cried. Six months later, Trujillo was himself ambushed and shot to death on a beach road south of the capital. Like my Grandfather Russell, a casualty of desire.

§

One morning, I watched Rósula pick up a pair of heavy kitchen scissors. She was going to cut the wings of Juanita, her outdoor parrot. I’d never seen anyone do something like that, and I must have appeared shocked. But she explained that otherwise the bird might escape from the cage under the mango tree, and she’d have to scour the neighborhood in hopes of finding and bringing it home.

The parrot struggled, twisted its neck, and pecked at Rósula’s hands as she scissored through the stiff flight feathers as though they were nothing more than cloth. But the ordeal was over as quickly as it had begun. Rósula unwrapped the white towel she’d used to restrain the parrot; she eased it back into the cage. And as I watched her deposit the clipped portions of the wings into the garbage, I realized I had witnessed the perfect metaphor for desire—the tragedy of it, the persistence of it. Here I was, a grandfather well into his sixties whose amorous wings had been cut a decade before by a cancer surgery too commonplace to name. But still, I was subject to desire.

That afternoon, I told Rósula I intended to write an essay in Spanish.

“About what?” she asked.

“Desire.”

She was washing dishes at the sink, and she looked over at me skeptically, as if she were calibrating where such a notion might lead.

“It’s an essay about the nature of desire,” I explained. “Like what the author of Hebrews said about the nature of faith.”

“Ah,” she said. She wanted to know more, but I’d written nothing but what I thought might be the last two lines, to which she said: “Well, let’s hear them, okay?”

So I opened my notebook and read: Deseo no es la cotorra que estoy buscando en el bosque. Desire is not the bird that I’m looking for in the forest. Deseo es el gusano que está comiendo mi corazón. Desire is the worm that’s eating at my heart.

Rósula thought about that a moment, and then toweled off her hands. “But you know what happens to the worm, don’t you?”

I shook my head.

“It turns into a butterfly,” she said.

§

On an afternoon toward the end of my stay in Santiago, I was in the backseat of Rósula’s car with her oldest daughter, Evelina, while Rósula and a friend of hers from church delivered gifts to a shut-in neighbor. Evelina and her mother had argued earlier in the day, but things had settled down by then.

“I’ve never met a woman like your mother,” I told her.

Evelina gave me a wry grin. “Yeah, she’s crazy. She has plans for you this afternoon.”

Plans? My heart leapt. I didn’t ask what kind.

And I didn’t find out until right before dinner, as I sat on the couch with Lily in my lap. The dog was wearing a bolero and ruffled trousers while we watched a Venezuelan soap opera called Decisiones, an episode in which a policeman comes home early to find his wife in bed with his best friend. The policeman has to decide whether or not to pull out his service revolver and shoot them. During the commercial break, Rósula entered the living room in her blue tunic and surgical mask. She motioned for me to get up and follow her into her dental office. This is gonna hurt, I thought.

She adjusted the reclining chair and invited me to make myself comfortable. “Open your mouth,” she said. “Wider.” And she examined my teeth, tapping each one with her pointed probe. When she got to an upper right bicuspid, she tapped it two or three more times and said, “How long have you had this filling?”

“I don’t know. Since I was a teenager, I guess.”

“I thought so. We don’t use fillings like this anymore. It’s black. It’s ugly. I’m going to take it out and put in one that’s whiter. Do you have problems with your heart?”

Did I have problems with my heart?

I thought about my mother, whom I’d never loved the way I should have. I thought about the women I’d desired but never truly loved, the women I’d left who’d loved me, the women I’d loved who’d left me. I thought about the two marriages that had ended in divorce. I thought about the children their mother and I had prayed we’d be able to have, and about the child before them that we’d aborted. I thought about the difference between faith and desire. If faith was the substance of the things we’d hoped for, then desire was the substance of the things we’d lost. Desire was not the bird I was looking for in the forest. Desire was the worm that was eating at my heart.

Rósula lifted her surgical mask. “Dennis, did you hear me? I asked if you had problems with your heart.”

I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Good, because I’m going to give you an anesthetic.” She readjusted her mask. And then she shot me up with Novocain and cranked up her ancient drill.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Access one piece of artwork every month for free! To experience the full archive, log in or subscribe.

Pin It on Pinterest