IHAVE HURT MY FATHER two times that I know of. The first time, I called him from my sparsely furnished room in Virginia to ask him if he’d heard of a book I was reading. I walked the hardwood floors slowly, one foot in front of the other, balancing on an imperceptible beam. My day had been a bit blue, so my night was cleared for a long talk with him. He said no, he hadn’t heard of it, but he couldn’t wait to read it. He asked about my day. I happened to read some poetry, I told him. I told him I read Ai.
My dad is a poet. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s a car salesman. Or a dad. He got his BA in creative writing from a small school in Chicago. He ran workshops at his school, in the city, in the Robert Taylor Homes. He was published in a few anthologies he’ll take out and page through if you can talk him into it. He’ll tell you about working with Gwendolyn Brooks, Sandra Cisneros. About his favorite poem he wrote, “Scuse Me, Sorry,” a poem about Negro History Month. About being the perfect age of knowing and not caring, and thinking that maybe his poems could change the world.
Finally, if you stick with him long enough, he’ll tell you about Ai. His love for her is a student’s love, a worshipful, tight-lipped smile kind of love, a head-shake that says this story would take too long to tell kind of love. He’ll tell you about the night he met her, at an event they were both attending because they’d been published in the same anthology. He’ll tell you about how she jived with him and the other new kids, how she loved them right back.
I paused on the phone, then mentioned that Ai passed away a few years back, did he hear? He gasped on the other end. He was silent then for a long time. I sat down on my floor. I told him I was sorry. Because I had mentioned her death as an aside, thinking surely he knew. Because I hadn’t known news like this could take years in making its way to him.
Our dining room table in Colorado was light brown, with four chairs and a bench. Mom found the set for next to nothing a couple years ago. A real God deal, she told us, looking at it in the dining room after they’d hauled it in from the back of Dad’s truck. Our previous dining set, God rest its soul. We’d all gotten into a game of switching the chairs around when no one was looking, especially if ours had been wobbling through dinner. The solarium next to the dining room had become our chair graveyard, full of any that had collapsed, legs splintering. Mom resorted to replacing broken chairs with sturdy finds from Goodwill until we could afford to replace the whole set. With this one, the light brown one. A real God deal.
Months before I broke the news of Ai’s passing to my father and years before we would land at the second hurt, I sat at that table with my younger siblings and him. The dining room fit little more than the table and the six of us, still stuffed with whatever Mom had cooked for dinner. Dad sat at the head of the table. Skini was playing with her napkin on the bench. I was next to Skini, not my usual spot. I rested my chin on her shoulder, looking at Dad. Mom was in the kitchen, cleaning up from dinner and making a cake for dessert. Guy was across from Dad at the foot of the table. Guy is six foot two and the kind of handsome that makes strangers double take at the grocery store. He played football for a university in small-town Nebraska and at the time of this story was only home for the summer. I was also home just for the summer. I’d quit my job of three years—a job in which I was flourishing until I wasn’t. Until it was like I’d hit a brick wall. I was still trying to get my bones put back in their right places.
“Tell us a story, Dad,” I said over Skini’s shoulder. I was selfish as I thought about my move across the country. I wanted to take parts of my family with me. I took out my cellphone and set it to record.
My father is a storyteller, but he is hard to get to stay in one place for longer than a few minutes. He picked his napkin up from his lap and tossed it on the table. Folded his fingers atop his stomach. Mom came to clear some dishes. It used to be that the four of us—me, Brother, Skini, and Guy—did the dishes together every night, rotating who was stuck with what job. Now, whenever the whole family was home, one or two of us would usually take on the dishes without much discussion. Tonight, it was Mom. Usually, it was Mom. Dad plunged into what had to be told.
“It wasn’t like somebody could call animal welfare to get the rabid animals.” I had missed the top of the story. “You’d be minding your business, walking the five miles down the road from your neighbor’s house to your house, and a rabid dog that had been laying out in the field could just hit the road, come after you. It was one of our biggest fears back then in Mississippi.”
“I’d be scared too,” Skini said. She was folding her napkin into patterns, then unfolding it, an orange puzzle she kept flattening with her long brown fingers.
“Yep,” Dad went on. “Well, one of my father’s favorite sports was to climb up a tree when his entire family, which consisted of five other kids—McKinley, Lloyd, Will, Floree, Rose—was all together. He’d climb up the tree, then he’d scream mad dog mad dog! And he’d just watch them scatter. That’s the kind of stuff he did all the time. Got a real kick out of it. He was the oldest of all the kids.”
I wondered about this grandfather I never met. I wondered what his Mississippi looked like. If it was the sage green I was picturing in my mind, fields barely fenced and stretching on for miles. Houses and barns built with good wood. Built to become rustic by the time someone like me could get to them, decades later. Get to them just to imagine repainting the splintering wood, to smile to myself thinking about what such a barn would look like strung with bulb lights for a wedding reception. I couldn’t picture my grandfather’s Mississippi the way I could picture my father’s Chicago.
“What did Grandpa do when he moved to Chicago? What was his job there?” I asked. The teakettle in the kitchen began to whistle.
“Your grandfather worked many jobs. Like everybody did, really. Everybody worked. And not only did everybody work, everybody had a hustle. Leo’s grandfather worked for a corporation in Harvey, but he also had a big woody station wagon and sold candy out of the back. The guys that ran the barber shop would cut heads on the side. My senior year at Harlan, my best friend’s family moved out of the Gardens, too. Jeff. Carver was the high school for Altgeld Gardens.”
He paused. The kettle shut off. Mom’s KitchenAid whirred. He went on to tell us about the rivalry between the two schools. On the night of one basketball game, kids from both schools who couldn’t get in climbed up to the roof, where they could see down into the gym through the high windows. Dad was there. Jeff was there. About a hundred other kids, too.
“We started banging on the grate, eventually broke the window. Next thing you know, cops gathered round on the ground. All the people on the roof started to cascade. It was like a waterfall of people coming off the roof.” His mouth twisted slightly to the side as he told this part. “Hit the ground and scattered. I don’t think they even let visitors to the games between Harlan and Carver after that.”
My grandfather got to Chicago from Mississippi by riding the rails, which was common during the Depression. He was born in 1913, and in his twenties he made his way to Chicago. My father wasn’t sure if it was because Aunt Rose had already moved up there and gotten married, but eventually my grandfather joined them. He got a job, rode the rails back down to Mississippi, got my grandmother, and they came back up on the real train. A passenger train. That was 1936. They were married in 1937. My grandfather used to drink, and a lot. He stopped drinking after my mom and dad married.
“He used to get delirium tremens,” my father told us next. He was looking off into the living room, fingers still folded on his stomach. “But his constitution was frighteningly powerful. The fact that he lived to be almost seventy-eight is just a miracle.”
I asked why he’d ever stopped drinking. Dad was quiet. The KitchenAid cut back on, made a soft sound in the background. Mom was trying a new recipe, a flourless cake. “I don’t know,” he finally answered. “But he liked your mother more than he liked me.” He smiled. My father’s teeth are small and smooth. His brown cheeks have freckles sprinkled across them. They wrinkle around his green eyes when he smiles. His hair is light brown, but heavily gray towards the front. People in his neighborhood used to call him Pepper for his bright red hair. Everyone had their favorite Pepper story, from playing jacks on the block to riding bikes through town as teenagers. We heard them all during our time in Chicago a few years earlier for his mother’s funeral.
That evening was years ago. By the second time I hurt my father, life has become less romantic. My heart has broken and my father spends his days in his room mostly, though we pray it won’t be like this for much longer. It is one of the only things I pray for at all anymore. He is reading a lot these days. He leaves his room for doctor’s appointments, when we have guests, or when we decide to eat dinner all together. So I send him stories and poems to read, and then we talk about them. I am returning from a trip to Paris during which I got to walk the city and sit and read Baldwin, a longtime dream of mine. Because of my father, I have a new appreciation for walking around places.
My father writes me an email. When I was in Paris, I told him to read “Sonny’s Blues.” I am at a moment in the story that just busted me in the gut. He goes on to tell me that Sonny’s mama just told him about how his uncle was killed.
It is the skeleton of an almost identical incident that happened to my father’s baby brother when he and his siblings were younger than you guys.
My siblings and I are all in our twenties and thirties now, fully ourselves in most ways. After scattering across the country, we are all slowly returning to surround my parents, to live our lives in the place that has both confused and comforted us as we’ve grown. At times we still gather in our parents’ meager dining room, and we laugh and share as much as we can.
I remember hearing just bits and pieces about how McKinley was killed by a or some white man/men, says the email, and the similarity of the telling of these bits and pieces was that they were conveyed with a heart-numbing coldness and distance that made me sometimes just physically take a step back, as if I didn’t want to hear any more and they didn’t want to say any more. I have never pursued it any further, and now I have to. This is not something I want to do.
The email quiets the rest of my day. I want to apologize, though I don’t quite know for what. Weeks later he texts me a picture of a handwritten poem about Baldwin’s piece, with the message it needs a lot of work. The final image in the poem is the shell of a ’57 Chevy, my father’s initials scrawled below.
In two months I will move closer to home again. I will pack as much as I can into a truck, and with my plants and my dog riding with me I will make my way back. I do not know what being closer will do—if there will be more stories or fewer, if I will steal away to my parents’ as often as I tell myself now that I will. But I know that the move will tighten something in me that has come loose.
Last summer I sat with my father in a hospital room with a breathtaking view of Pikes Peak. He talked to me about lineage, and about black people, how joy and rejoicing are a part of who we are. He talked to me about scripture, about parenthood, about not getting things right. “your own life / is a chain of words / that one day will snap,” wrote Ai. “… Could anyone alive survive it?” Outside the window, the mountain loomed.
Elisabeth Booze completed her MFA at Hollins University. She taught middle and high school for five years and is currently an instructional coach for beginning teachers.