The 5th Inning
By E. Ethelbert Miller
PM Press Busboys and Poets Copyright © 2009 E. Ethelbert Miller
All rights reserved.
I didn't want to become another Ellison. I had talked about writing a second memoir for several years. If I didn't begin immediately there would be no beginning. Whereas Ellison could never produce another Invisible Man, I wanted to surpass what I had done in Fathering Words: The Making of An African American Writer. The book was written as a tribute to the lives of Egberto and Richard Miller, my father and brother. Two black men who should have lived much longer and accomplished much more. Fathering Words was also about how I became a writer. For much of my life I have taken the poet's journey, the path which emanates from the heart. This rugged terrain has known tears, loneliness, and depression. Why continue to wear a mask? My first memoir featured two voices instead of one. I wrote in my sister Marie's voice and my own, creating a duet within the text. How could I tell my family stories when there were so many secrets kept from me? The curse of being the baby of the family. My sister, five years older, had a head full of hair and stories, too.
I wrote a good memoir published in 2000; the finished project surprised me like Jackie Robinson stealing home in front of Yogi. How could I find so many words to describe my path? I said silent prayers hoping the book would have a long life. Maybe a few were answered.
But now I'm pushing myself to write this second memoir. This book is a riff on middle-age, marriage, fatherhood, and failure. In baseball the fifth inning can represent a complete game. The structure of this book consists of balls and strikes. As a writer I might now and then throw the reader a curve. Balls and strikes can also stand for BS. How much is thrown at a person by the time they reach 50? When BS becomes just B, it might represent not balls but the blues. Four balls is a walk. The blues seen as departure and loss? The B also stands for blackness, perhaps the essence of the blues.
When August Wilson died at 60, I thought of the long conversation I once had with the novelist Charles Johnson a few months before Wilson went public with his illness. Charles had called me at Bennington College, where I was teaching creative writing. He told me Wilson was going to die. We were both angry and sad. Our long conversation became a lifeline for us both. We thought of how quickly life is suddenly over – so much work left undone. We are born with blank pages. Notebooks without lines. August Wilson seemed blessed because he was able to complete his cycle of plays prior to his death. But what about the majority of us? Our lives are often incomplete. We struggle to love like Wilson's character Citizen in Gem of the Ocean. By the time we turn 50 our bodies begin to fail. Mirrors might catch a glimpse of an aging body on the way to work and mumble some words in its direction. Maybe the mirror says "loser."
How do we cope with failure in life? How do we live when everyday we open our eyes to death? This memoir is about how I coped with failure and disappointment in career, marriage, and life. We fail as lovers, parents, and friends.
It's almost the end of the fifth inning, and someone is getting up either in the dugout or bullpen. It's almost over, I tell myself. Why else write a book? Some of us fail as writers, too.
Baseball is still the American Pastime.
There is an inning in which husbands stop talking to their wives. It might be an argument that changes the score, taking love with it. How did I become one of those silent men sitting across the table from a woman with graying hair and a body now entering fall? When did my vows become autumn?
Love is difficult these days. Isn't it? I'm writing during a time of war. Yes, I thought my mission was accomplished after writing one memoir, but here I am acknowledging the past again. Yes, this might be another attempt at forgetting. Why try to remember? Why construct a memorial with words?
I'm often engulfed in loneliness. The nakedness of standing on the pitching mound alone. I've been crying too much. A sign of depression or sensitivity? One day I just couldn't take it anymore. My daughter was in the bathroom showering; my son was a cell phone call away. It was a film noir moment. Shadows, cigarette smoke, and a crazy dame. How do fathers handle disagreements with mothers? I wanted to walk out of the house with my blues. I couldn't keep fighting anymore. What terrorists' secrets had been kept from me? How did my life become Iraq? Why do I keep taking my shoes off when I enter the house? Can a home begin to resemble an airport before a ticket is checked? In my life I've witnessed too many good friends killing themselves as if they were workshopping a poem, novel, or memoir. What created those long sentences that ran out of air trying to explain the heart?
When a person becomes 50 or approaches the years that follow, his story is almost over. He can turn around and see the narrative he created. It might be about children, wealth, or personal achievements. The narrative is the story you find yourself in but can't determine if you're the author. You tell a woman you love her but its false intelligence. So much of this lately – so you apologize during this age of apology. How difficult can it be when so many others are apologizing for murder, war, adultery, and slavery? What is the difference between a confession and an apology?
What does a person confess after an error? A woman tells a man that marrying him was the worst mistake she ever made in her life. Is she confessing? Should he apologize?
So, I'm writing this memoir while sitting in a studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I've written five, six, maybe seven pages on my first day. I feel good. Discipline. Control. The narrative finding the corner of the plate. I have a postcard of James Baldwin on my desk. He is leaning against the pen and pencil holder. It's the photograph Jill Kremetz took in 1973. Baldwin is wearing a shirt with a large collar. He has on a tie. He is 49. He isn't looking angry or mourning Malcolm or Martin. In this picture Baldwin is Miles. The coolness reflected in his stare into the camera. Into life. I remember in the early 1980s, being on the same program with Baldwin. We were at the Howard University Law School. I read a few poems first as if I was an early warm-up act for Aretha. Baldwin followed, lifting my words into his own and turning them into not just poetry but jewels. He spoke about his life as if he was Martin in Memphis. That point of not simply looking back but instead coming to that moment of measurement and truth. That moment when you know the price of the ticket but you have no cash. You turn around looking for someone to help you. You have an apology in one hand and a confession in the other.
The Intruders are singing, "Love is just like a baseball game. Three strikes you're out." I'm missing the second pitch. I'm in mid-swing about to hear the ball pop into the catcher's mitt. I'm waiting for it like that second shoe about to fall or the way Americans walked around after 9/11. Some of us are afraid. Afraid to say something isn't working. Well, maybe we're just afraid to say the whole damn thing is broken. You can't fix the economy or stop racism. You can't love another human being without failing.
Everything comes down to balls and strikes. You don't need religion or God to understand this. One can keep a scorecard just like God. Now and then you try to slow things down by stepping out of the box. I like how good hitters step back, adjust their uniforms, stroke their bats, survey the field, spit, grab themselves between the legs, step back into the box, touch their caps, stare at the pitcher, swing the bat a few times, and maybe if you're Ricky Henderson, step back out of the box and do it all over again. Balls and strikes. You can swing or take them. You can stand in the batter's box waiting for your pitch and never get it. Some people never learn how to hit. Anybody can get lucky if they can lay the bat on the ball. Political leaders try to be first ball hitters. Great jazz musicians can swing all the time. Rumor has it that the first slave in America got hit in the head with a pitch. A curveball?
I'm writing this memoir consisting of balls and strikes. Words changing into sliders, knuckleballs, forkballs, fastballs, and change-ups. I'm throwing sentences and paragraphs at readers. Hit this. Don't go chasing meaning where there is none. Some pitchers worry about their arms. I know it might be my kidneys or heart. My blood pressure is high so I keep checking my body for signs.
I read the obituaries everyday and wonder what people will say about me. I expect the title "'literary activist and poet" to be in the headline. Then there will be a reference to Howard University or the city of Washington. By the second paragraph there will be an attempt to determine the significance of my life. It's here that an entire career can be reduced down to one poem or book. If you're fortunate it could be the work that made you famous. Find a mistake in your obituary and you'll carry it to your grave.
How often has my name been misspelled? Will someone leave out the E? Will I be Ethelbert E. Miller throughout eternity? Will they mention Michelle, my first wife? Will they remember the women who I lived with? What about the women I only slept with once?
Maybe there will be a list of countries that I visited and then back to a few quotes from people who will claim they visited me – during the time I was hungry and it was their world.
Finally, one or two lines listing survivors; family members who maybe watched my coffin from the good seats.
John Madden is big on ceremonial bunting at big games. It's like having good polished shoes before you start walking. I haven't spent time thinking about where I would like to be buried or who would give my eulogy. Maybe I should. I hope it's not someone who only knew my work. Can you imagine Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton speaking as if they knew me? Both of them probably stumbling over the correct pronunciation of my name. "Edlebert," my friend Jina says with her sweet Dominican accent. Her voice reminds me that I should have surrounded my life with more water. Be an island like so many of the members of my family that came from islands. West Indians. Bajans. But I imagine in my obituary nothing will link me to this geographical space and place. Why? Who destroyed the narrative? Where are the bones of my sins?
The words "literary activist and poet" seem to leave my lips very quickly when I'm asked to define myself. Is this a self-created identity? I started using the term around 2000. How come I find myself hesitating to describe myself as a father? Hasn't fatherhood been at the center of every decision I made or did not make over the last thirty years? Won't the last lines of my obituary mention my children's names?
Extra-innings. That's what one hopes for when the game seems to be ending. Doris Grumbach once wrote a memoir by this title. It's something I haven't thought about. My son and daughter seem to be living such different lives from my own. Yet what did my father think of me when my head was always in a book? We never played baseball in a park. I wonder if I'm as distant from my children as they are to me. My days of early fatherhood seem so much a blur these days. I associate family memories with places where I've lived in Washington. Is this what one calls making a home?
The Newport West, located at 1415 Rhode Island Avenue, is where I brought my daughter home after her birth. When I first moved into this apartment building the lobby had an upscale Bobby Brown look. The furniture in the lobby was missing a do-rag and the walls were red. A long time ago, one passed The Newport West and believed people with money lived there. Not true. One apartment was owned by prostitutes. Other units on my floor had doors I never saw open. I owned a duplex – split level. Two floors. The Newport West was an impressive place to live if you didn't want to impress anyone.
The day before my daughter came home, the place had no hot water. I had a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I was a new father in a kitchen mess like the star on one of those bad comedy television shows. Maybe I would have a silly name like EE and every time something dumb would happen, an angry woman would scream: "Enough EE enough."
Fatherhood immediately made me confrontational. It was as if I had pushed aside King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and wanted everything to be right for my new baby girl. Fatherhood consisted of moments of assemblage: car seat, crib, and toys. Not being good with tools or reading directions in several languages, I was hopeless at times. I detected disgust in my wife's eyes similar to a fan watching a relief pitcher blow a save.
My son was born when I lived at 1651 Fuller Street, NW. This building was owned by the art patron Herb White. It was a small white building with four floors pushed back from a street behind Columbia Road. It had a veranda instead of a terrace, and on the hot days you could watch all the drug transactions. If someone had told me there was a "God of Gentrification" I would have been on my knees almost everyday and praying to it. How many fathers are forced to raise their children on Fuller Streets? It was a street my son would never play on. The father protects his herd, even though one night it was my cat Holly that probably saved our lives. One hot summer night before going to sleep, I checked in on my son and daughter sleeping in their bunk beds. They must have been eight and thirteen. My night ritual was to make sure to check on them. Rookies do that after their first hit. New to first base they look over at the first base coach. Didn't someone do the same for me? In my children's room was an unread USA Today. I had instructed them both to read the newspaper on a daily basis. Tonight the paper was folded and could have been left already prepared to swat bugs. I picked it up and decided to glance at a few stories before retiring. While reading in the outer room I noticed Holly my cat adopt an attack posture near the kitchen door. When I went to check to see what the problem was, I was shocked to discover a foot trying to push itself through my kitchen window. I yelled at the foot, and the foot took off. A few days later the police shot a person trying to climb into a neighbor's window.
It was not the foot but rather the bunk beds in the previous paragraph that encouraged me to purchase a house at 1411 Underwood Street, NW. Once known as being near the "Gold Coast," the five bedroom house saved my daughter's sanity. She felt that entering high school and still sharing a bunk bed with her brother was psychologically damaging. A family of four, we needed more space as much as Woody Allen needed the eggs.
Did your daddy ever listen to the blues or did he listen to himself?
Maybe a literary critic years from now will ask my children this question. I've been listening to the blues more than ever. Etta James? I never listened to Etta James before marriage. I did recall Thulani Davis mentioning her in a poem many years ago. Maybe the name got caught in the crease of my soul. I was trying to keep my mind straight, but the blues knocked me down. I took comfort in Etta's voice. Her songs touching my head, pressing my spirit against the wall. The blues find their way to your door on those days and nights when you simply don't talk to the person you live with. It's what some folks call being civil. Instead of yelling and throwing things and waking up neighbors, you keep the disagreements under water like you're drowning them until your own voice is gasping for air. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller. Copyright © 2009 E. Ethelbert Miller. Excerpted by permission of PM Press Busboys and Poets.
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