Shouting I run
In the other direction,
With open shirt
And tinkling guitar
– W.H. Auden
Dimly understood. He saw his train speeding towards its spanking new counterpart, a game of chicken, although he knew the other train could not move out of his path. Released the high guttural horn in warning. Nowhere to run. Nothing he could do other than listen to the friction of the brakes and rhythmic stopgap clanging of wheels against rails and wait. On impact, his older sturdier built engine tunneled through the newer model, sound of metal tearing through metal, structure reduced, steel veering away in long lines. The second train a calabash spilling out commuters, both the living and the dead. In the aftermath the air was left shaking. Sound dwindled. A weighing silence.
For a hairbreadth I’m caught in the wreckage until I manage to follow the calligraphic lines of the rails through the clanging swirl, pull myself free, and take on flesh again. Lurched away, all still in the room save for the sound of the television, a modest-sized black-and-white model, a few years still before my mother and I would own our first color console. Thinking back, in the root of my mind I see the television set, a hollow bulky box with faux-wood paneling, gray images splashing inside and gurgling sound. Almost fifty years have passed, yet I still can hear the announcer’s voice reaching me as if from underwater, another dimension. I was experiencing the realization of my greatest fear as a child, that my mother would die, leaving me all alone.
My mother often commuted on this train, the I.C. (Illinois Central), to the Loop on weekday mornings, then transferred to a second train for Winnetka, the northern suburb where she made thirty-five dollars a day working as a maid – ‘day work’ she and her friends called it – for a wealthy white family. That morning – 30 October 1972 – she’d readied herself as usual to the rhythms of easy listening sliding out from a small radio we kept on the kitchen table. At 7:00 sharp she’d left through the back (kitchen) door, a morning like any other. I’d proceeded to bathe, dress, cook breakfast, before sitting down on the living room couch with my overflowing plate of food to watch The Ray Rayner Show, speed-eating and drinking through my meal: glasses of milk and orange juice, four slices of well-buttered toast, two eggs over easy and four strips of bacon, covered by a collapsed tent of maple syrup. I was ten years old, tall and skinny for my age, and I had a voracious appetite.
A special news bulletin brought my morning to a standstill. At the news, I put my plate aside and remained seated on the couch, mulling over my options. My mother usually arrived at work around 9:00, so rather than leave for school, I decided I would remain at home and call her employers at the appropriate time and ask to speak to her. Determined, I sat waiting, seconds and minutes shaping the four corners of the room. An hour passed: I needed to pick up the phone and place the call but I could not.
Craning forward from my place on the couch, I stared into the bubbled glass of the television and burrowed inside myself, listening, watching and waiting, trying to bring the facts into focus. The location. The collision had happened a short distance away from Michael Reese Hospital. (Almost forty years later in February 2008, my mother would have her right leg amputated below the knee at this hospital, losing both her mobility and independence.) The number of dead. The moment (1:33 p.m.) when the last three victims were pulled from the wreckage. I could envision, in my imagination, firefighters and EMTs looking for survivors, combing through twisted smoking metal.
Because I had the mind of a writer even then, my imagination drew up grisly images that fleshed out the sanitized news reports. I sat through each added-to moment, my thoughts speeding up until I managed to calm down, only for them to speed up and cycle through my fear again.
On her days off from work – Sundays and holidays – my mother and I would catch the I.C. to the Loop, a smooth floating adventure, quiet and comfortable, preferable to the bus or El, and quicker, even if more expensive. I would watch the Southside unfurl outside the rattling window, houses and buildings soaring up and expanding in geometrical infinity, my spirits high – how exhilarating – then see Lake Michigan expand in vast offering, a flash of reflections, and more, until we slanted into the last station downtown. Buoyant, we might spend the day browsing the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago – no matter how poor we were, my mother knew it was important to expose me to the larger world – then spend some time in Carson Pirie Scott or Marshall Field’s, each department store housed in a spacious beautiful building with marble walls and floors, stained glass and other choice features, the best architecture that Chicago had to offer. Then we would go over to Wabash Avenue under the shadows of the El and eat dinner at Wendy’s, my mother’s favorite fast-food joint. The outing might end at Fannie May’s with a small purchase of high-end caramel chews, turtles and pecan rolls to enjoy on the I.C. home.
We were aligned. A nation of two. Her allegiances were to me. People often remarked how we looked alike, how we argued like husband and wife.
That evening, I heard my mother’s heavy step climbing the carpeted wooden stairs, heard her pause on the landing before our front door, then a key turning the lock. Readying myself, praying. The door opened and there she was, my mother, another day another dollar. Wobbly, I stood up from the couch. Dog-tired, she seemed to take some time to become aware of me. She glanced at me and promptly shut and locked the door behind her, not overly concerned about the TV blaring the news. I think I came towards her in a daze and held her, glad to find her body charged with life. She was a fleshy woman, just short of being fat, her arms thick, her hips branching wide. I was almost as tall as she was. (In a year or two, I would outgrow her, and she would often joke with her friends that she had to stand on a chair to ‘whup’ me – my face buried in her bosom.
She pulled me in, but she did not hold me for long. She was supportive, loving, but not affectionate.
She guided me back to the couch, and we sat for some minutes in silence, me breathing deeply, trying to console myself.
‘Are you wheezing?’ she asked.
I was not, but perhaps her words produced a dramatic effect in me and my lungs became more labored. Wheezing. This was her world, a poor single mother with a sickly child, no small burden at a time when the medical community did not know how to effectively treat the disease. Hours and days at my bedside – convalescence in the form of nights of a humidifier humming out cool air, Vicks VapoRub slathered across my chest – or at my gurney in an emergency room.
Already an anxious and melancholic child, the train crash un-loosed something in me, vague broodings. In the weeks that followed I would lay in bed at night feeling like I was made of black air. At any time death could claim me. Worse, it could claim my mother. She did what she could to help comfort my fears. Then another disaster that December, an airline crash in the Everglades. I fixated on the reports, my mind looping through images of alligators springing up from black waters to feed on the survivors. But that was not the worst. A few days later on the morning of 1 January 1973, I awakened to the news that Roberto Clemente, one of my favorite baseball players, had perished in a plane crash off the shores of Puerto Rico during an aid mission. It was the same tale being repeated.
See me and my mother standing at a bus stop on a cold winter night, my mother holding me close to her body, my face buried inside her wool coat. A scene frozen in time by a brutal Chicago winter, even if the weather was warmer than usual, the temperature above average. My mother protecting me from the elements and doing her best to protect me from an uncertain world.
Gospel hymns carried my mother through each day, songs of hope she sang to herself at home, songs that sustained her belief that God would safeguard and deliver us to the promised land of better times. But her faith felt foreign to me. We had been shortchanged. My mother struggled mightily to provide for us, the world cruel, unjust. By age seven I’d started to wonder why God would allow good people like her to suffer. And why did he allow foreign substances inside me to constrict my breathing (asthma), allow that constant surging in the cell of my being that filled me with feelings of black negativity. Fragile body, fragile mind.
Photographs reveal that by age nine I had stopped smiling, my mouth set to prevent others from viewing my buck teeth. This sense that I forever lived in the spotlight, the bright circle of public scrutiny, all eyes on me, even as (the flip side) I was given over to a sense that life was an elaborate stage set of actors and props, everything around me a clever performance.
That childish spell was broken when Bruce Lee died in July 1973, two weeks after my eleventh birthday, a tragedy that had unexpected consequences for me. I’d heard much about the martial arts icon but had never seen his films. That opportunity came several months later. One morning, I caught the I.C. to the Loop as I did each Saturday, but instead of attending my youth class at the Art Institute, I paid two dollars to attend a Bruce Lee marathon playing at a once-opulent movie house. I entered the crowded theater, walked across a floor sticky beneath my shoes, and for the better part of a day sat in a musty tattered velvet seat, gazing at the mammoth screen, watching and re-watching Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection and Enter the Dragon, every punch, kick and growl implanted in my consciousness. Changed.
Even at that age I operated under the discipline of reading everything I could about any person or subject of interest, a scholar’s brain. Bruce Lee was no exception. Through Lee my worldview expanded, took on new dimensions. So compellingly did I envision a possibility for my life in his that I decided to model myself after him. Eat what he ate. Train the way he trained. (Impossible given that I frequently suffered exercise-induced asthma attacks.) Study and master every art of combat the way he had. And like Lee, I would shake up the world then die in my prime.
The upshot of all this research was that I ventured into philosophy for the first time, a scholastic add-on that provided a frame for my feelings of discontentment and estrangement and gave me much-needed confidence, bolstering me, bestowing a sense of importance, a mission. Lee thought highly of Spinoza and Krishnamurti, finding mindful equivalents to Jeet Kune Do in their ideas. I read both men, although I couldn’t make heads or tails of Spinoza. Krishnamurti wrote for the layman, plain and direct. Immersing myself in his ideas, I embraced his view that ‘time’ – the past, ‘thought’ – was the cause of human suffering. Understood the truth that all traditions and orthodoxies – religious, philosophical, national, racial – amounted to little more than falsehoods that we must discard for an understanding of life in the moment. Sustained by the possibility that I could ‘free my mind from thought’, a new conviction began to form.
Because something in me gravitated toward extremes, I became cavalier about my atheism, unconstrained and confrontational, so much so that I sought every opportunity to antagonize a true believer: ‘If there is a God, let him strike me dead right now,’ words that often prompted the person to back away from me, safe distance. I was no longer in step with the world but convinced myself that I liked it that way.
I’m certain that my newfound disposition changed the way I was with my mother, certain that she worried about me, but was at a loss as to what to say or do. A testing time. She was as gregarious as I was shy. She kept a circle of friends that included a dozen or more middle-aged black women, mostly dayworkers like her. They abounded in a life of picnics, barbecues, Tupperware parties and club dates. I would observe, study and judge them from the sidelines, their outbursts of laughter, impassioned eating and drinking, and cheerful gossip (what they called ‘Who-shot-John?’), me an outsider looking in at these interlopers.
At some point, she decided that enough was enough and put her foot down, told me that I would be baptized, but when the Sunday came around, I refused to go to church and she did not force the issue. Perhaps I’d been counting on this outcome; she often gave in. Like other mothers of the time, she did not spare the rod, but she also tolerated much from me, allowed me free reign to back talk and challenge her.
Perhaps I felt I could stand up to her because I believed she, a survivor of the Jim Crow South, did not stand up for herself, only took the indignities, insults and injustices she suffered. Hard times had induced a stoic attitude towards life. For her bygones were bygones. No looking back. No yesteryear nostalgia or disappointment.
I felt a need to protect her. More than once, my misguided chivalry this would bring me into conflict with her employers.
Alone at home one Saturday I answered the phone. The man at the other end told me his name, a name that I recognized, that many would recognize. For decades his family had amassed wealth from operating a trucking company out of Chicago’s stockyards. He asked to speak to my mother. I told him that she was away, not available.
‘Tell your mother she better bring her black ass here right now,’ he said.
‘Fuck you,’ I said.
‘What did you say to me?’
If only I could have answered, cut him with my tongue. Instead, I said nothing.
‘What did you say to me? On Monday I’ll go down to the welfare office and have them cut off your aid.’
Much shot through my mind. To have looked him in the face, seen his body. I wanted him to know me.
When my mother returned home, I told her about the exchange, told her I’d cussed out this dude, stupid racist jerk. She gave me her look, admonished me. From time to time, I’d heard my mother voice some displeasure about her employers, the rare complaint, but nothing she revealed was lost on me, a catalogue of wrongs stored within, fueling my anger, justifying the longed-for comeuppance, payback.
Later that day, the man called again, this time to apologize. As it turned out, the wife had given my mother the day off, but had miscommunicated the facts to him, an honest mistake. My mother knew this meant his wife had spent the day in an alcoholic stupor, facts forgotten. She accepted his apology, but his insult was the straw that broke the camel’s back, her polite tone at odds with the way she felt. She found some excuse to never return to their home.
It would be many years before I understood that around my mother’s sober acceptance of the status quo was a whole culture she had developed for our subsistence and well-being. As a survivor of the segregated South, she had already seen it all. More than one man in our family had been lynched in Mississippi. Seeking greener pastures, she’d made the Great Migration to Chicago in 1949 when she was nineteen years old, greeted on arrival by the odor of the stockyards and slick city life. A witness, she was one among thousands of black folk who viewed Emmett Till’s body on public display inside a glass-fronted coffin. (‘It was horrible,’ she said.) Although white people would forever be a threat, her immediate concern were the mortal dangers of Southside Chicago she had to contend with each day, an exigency that overrode any reluctance she felt about carrying a Saturday Night Special.
She started carrying the pistol after she and her boyfriend John were robbed at gunpoint one night outside our courtyard building in the fall of 1974. Making light of a terrifying moment, she would recount the story of how John refused to take off his college graduation ring and how the two thugs grew impatient.
The vocal one spoke: ‘Lady, you better tell this nigger to take off his ring before I shoot him.’
Hearing her tell it, my mother’s friends – practical women – would shake their heads and laugh in disbelief. But I silently applauded John’s stubborn resistance.
To a bookish child like me, John made an overpowering impression of learning and intelligence. His style and manner, his dignity and unassuming demeanor, were far removed from the ‘cool’ that many black men thought necessary to display in public. I can still see him sitting on our living room couch in suit and tie, smoking a pipe with a soft expression of curiosity on his smooth, dark-skinned face – I would chance upon his pipe cleaners and golf-ball holders secreted around our apartment – his sideburns seeming to anchor down a short afro to his head. He was soft-spoken and thoughtful like no other person I’d met.
He and my mother often argued, but I never heard him raise his voice, only concede after so many insults. ‘Well, Alice, I don’t know why you had to say that.’
I suspect that my mother met him at the welfare office where he pulled a nine-to-five as a ‘case’ (social) worker. Men were one side of my mother’s practical character. In addition to John, she kept two other main squeezes in rotation, L.C. and Eddie, although other male companions came and went – like the one who gave her a run-of-the-mill expressionist painting that she hung for some years before gifting it to a friend – men all unalike one another, their lives only overlapping via my mother. John, Eddie and L.C. shared one tragic trait: each man would succumb to a terminal disease before his time.
Tuberculosis claimed L.C. (After he died, my mother and I were required to follow a regimen of preventive medication for a year.) As I remember him, L.C. was an older man, well into his sixties; he looked like a well-used Kewpie Doll, his hair flaring above his head in a wavy perm (speeding jellyfish), his face round but severe, mapped with age and wrinkles. He presented an imposing figure but without any display of muscle, his waist so wide that his legs seemed too slim to sustain his bulk. If John was urbane, L.C. was country in his unapologetic speech and dress, like a hunter who had simply materialized on city streets. Joining in my memory with the smell of oil and bleach, the wood-paneled station wagon he drove was filled with tools – he provided us with a steady supply of Drano, lightbulbs, screws and nails, hammers and hacksaws, and electrical tape and sandpaper – and in its extended length and design resembled a cross between a trailer home and a funeral hearse.
To the best of my knowledge, L.C., never learned about my mother’s involvement with other men, although in my plain-spoken innocence I sometimes betrayed her confidences.
I did so one time when Eddie was rooted next to me on the couch, his black-socked feet crossed on the floor, and the edges of his reading-glasses case poking up from the pocket of his dress shirt. He was short and slight, his small shoulders bearing his oval-shaped head, his hair cut close to the scalp, his mustache pencil-thin like an Easter egg adornment. Mostly a quiet man, that day he kept up a steady stream of chatter throughout an episode of Star Trek that was airing on the boxy console color television he’d bought for me and my mother. Every few minutes he would grin and butt in: ‘I don’t like that phony stuff.’ (He often found my interests and activities perplexing. For example, he would see me hovering over a chessboard, moving both the white and black pieces, and would look at me as if he’d caught me masturbating.)
Near the end of the episode, I asked him if he knew John.
He directed his gaze at the floor. ‘John?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He was here the other night watching Hawaii Five-O.’
Later, my mother shared my gaff with her friends. It became a standing joke in our family, like the fact that Eddie always bought us a stunted Christmas tree no taller than him.
He was with us on the regular – at our apartment, taking us on errands in his Ford LTD, even attending social events – so much so that I spent more time in his company than with any other man during my adolescence. Always on standby for my mother. When she needed him, she would instruct my cousin Charles – seven years older than me – to call his home and pretend to be a running buddy from the Indiana steel mill where he worked. Back then, it never occurred to me that he and my mother were having an ‘affair’. I had no sense of the rightness or wrongness of any of it. Once inside our apartment, he would remove his shoes at the door then stand akimbo in his black socks (small feet peeking out like two mice from beneath his slacks), ready to be of service to ‘Alice May’, his term of endearment for my mother; and before he put on his shoes to leave, he would often slip my mother some cash, a few crisp bills.
What financial lines were drawn between these three men? What limits set?
One afternoon during my junior year in high school, John came to collect me and mother in his clean, comfortable car. I marveled at the news that we were going to purchase a new stereo system, my elevated spirits carrying me through the car ride to the electronics store. In memory I move through sliding glass doors, a salesman quick to latch onto me in high excitement. We converse, the salesman appraising our needs – I’d done my research – then I’m borne across glazed floor tiles on his undulating voice, John and my mother trailing behind us, the store flooded with LED illumination flowing out from stereo equipment perched in tiers along the wall, a watery resonance, the air glittering with music – disco, funk, R & B, rock. After an hour, I’d selected a receiver, turntable, cartridge-and-needle, tape-deck and speakers, edging over the thousand dollar-budget John had set. But I was not satisfied.
Credit card in hand, John accompanied the salesman to the cash register. I seized the moment, told my mother, ‘We need an equalizer.’
She said nothing, only started for the register. I repeated my demand. She continued walking as if she hadn’t heard me, but once we reached the register there was nod and a lift of the head, the flashing of her look, and that was the end of it.
On the ride home, I stewed in the back seat, dissatisfied, ungrateful, sullen, evil-eyeing my mother, evil-eyeing John. Nothing but ease in John’s handling of the car, elbow crooked on the edge of the open window, tips of his finger controlling the steering wheel. Then something moved in his gaze, barely noticeable. Other movement followed. Every now and then his head and arms crackling with tremors like the starting of a small avalanche in his body, symptoms of the multiple sclerosis that would cut him down a few years later, while he was still in his forties.
Lung cancer cut Eddie down a few years after the steel mill cheated him out of his pension. Fired him before his twenty-fifth year on the job, bequeathing him nothing more than two decades of exposure to toxic materials.
I no long remember how my mother took this loss, or the loss of John and L.C., only that there were no more boyfriends after Eddie. What has stayed with me is the full display of grief after her mother’s death.
In the fall of 1979, at the start of my senior year in high school, my grandmother took the train up from the South to visit. I knew that she was sick, battling stomach cancer. She’d already endured a hard sixty-six years. Raised on a sharecropping plantation, by her late teens she and her sisters had embarked on daywork, the profession they passed on to my mother and aunt. As I knew her, she was a glum, serious woman who offered little in the way of kindness to me and my cousins when we spent our summers with her in West Memphis, quick to criticize and punish, cruelty even in the large tablespoon of cod liver oil she made each one of us take every morning.
Her visit was mostly uneventful. She slept on the sleeper sofa in our living room. We would sit together watching her favorite TV programs, Sanford and Son and The Waltons. I was full of feelings, but mostly aware of her overworked wig that never quite fit, gray hairs weeding out, her slack tired face, her mouth puckered without her false teeth, her sandbag-like flabby arms, and her calves covered with liver spots. We rarely spoke during the weeks she visited, so I was surprised one day when she opened up and advised me, ‘Don’t be a wallflower.’ On the morning of her return home, she paused while packing her suitcase, pointed at my chess trophies on display, and started sobbing, proud, my accomplishments harbingers of a better tomorrow for our family.
A few months later, I dreamed about her. This last time I saw her, she was thin, emaciated, seated next to me on my bed. She spoke to me: ‘I won’t be seeing you anymore.’ I hugged her, felt the bones beneath her skin, and cried.
The next morning, my mother told me that she’d died the previous night. Then my mother said, ‘Now I have no one.’
I did not understand what she meant. Was I not someone? Were we not a nation of two?
Only now, forty years later, do I begin to feel what she felt, circling to an understanding, the great fear of my childhood realized.
I enter the nursing home, make my way to the ‘day room’ where I find my mother parked at a table in her wheelchair, her ninety years deposited in this leather and steel contraption under the direction of the two rubber wheels that circumscribe her days.
She mostly asks me questions: ‘My mother’s name was Addie? . . . I had one brother? . . . He was killed? . . . I have one sister? . . . She had four kids but one of them died? . . . One of my nephews is named Larry? . . . He does them drugs? . . . Did you ever do them drugs?’
Then, looking befuddled, she asks me, ‘Jeffery, what do we do now?’
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘We just sit here.’
‘We just sit here?’
She accepts my answer then directs her gaze back to the television mounted on the wall, only to repeat the question a few minutes later.
Nothing I can do to save her. No way to pull her from the wreckage of time and disease. Nothing I can do to save myself from the sunken place of grief. ‘Now I have nobody.’
Cover image courtesy of the author.
‘Mother-Wit’ is included in the anthology Lonely Together: 20 Celebrated Writers on the Joys and Perils of Being Alone, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett and forthcoming from Catapult, February 2022.