The New York Times
God's Gymby John Edgar Wideman
In God's Gym, the celebrated author John Edgar Wideman offers stories that pulse with emotional electricity. The ten pieces here explore strength, both physical and spiritual. The collection opens with a man paying tribute to the quiet fortitude of his mother, a woman who "should wear a T-shirt: God's Gym." In the stories that follow, Wideman delivers powerful
In God's Gym, the celebrated author John Edgar Wideman offers stories that pulse with emotional electricity. The ten pieces here explore strength, both physical and spiritual. The collection opens with a man paying tribute to the quiet fortitude of his mother, a woman who "should wear a T-shirt: God's Gym." In the stories that follow, Wideman delivers powerful riffs on family and fate, basketball and belief. His mesmerizing prose features guest appearances by cultural luminaries as diverse as the Harlem Globetrotters, Frantz Fanon, Thelonious Monk, and Marilyn Monroe. As always, Wideman astounds with writing that moves from the intimate to the political, from shock to transcendence.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- (w) x (h) x 0.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean. She understands that the best-laid plans, the sweetest beginnings, have a way of turning to shit. Bad enough when life fattens you up just so it can turn around and gobble you down. Worse for the ones like my mother who life keeps skinny, munching on her daily, one cruel little needle-toothed bite at a time so the meal lasts and lasts. Mom understands life don’t play so spends beaucoup time and energy getting ready for the worst. She lifts weights to stay strong. Not barbells or dumbbells, though most of the folks she deals with, especially her sons, act just that way, like dumbbells. No. The weights she lifts are burdensher children’s, her neighbors, yours. Whatever awful calamities arrive on her doorstep or howl in the news, my mom squeezes her frail body beneath them. Grips, hoists, holds the weight. I swear sometimes I can hear her sinews squeaking and singing under a load of invisible tons.
I ought to know, since I’m one of the burdens bowing her shoulders. She loves heavy, hopeless me unconditionally. Before I was born, Mom loved me, forever and ever till death do us part. I’ll never be anyone else’s darling, darling boy, so it’s her fault, her doing, isn’t it, that neither of us can face the thought of losing the other. How could I resist reciprocating her love. Needing her. Draining her. Feeling her straining underneath me, the pop and crackle of her arthritic joints, her gray hair sizzling with static electricity, the hissing friction, tension, and pressure as she lifts more than she can bear. Bears more than she can possibly lift. You have to see it to believe it. Like the Flying Wallendas or Houdini’s spine-chilling escapes. One of the greatest shows on earth.
My mother believes in a god whose goodness would not permit him to inflict more troubles than a person can handle. A god of mercy and salvation. A sweaty, bleeding god presiding over a fitness class in which his chosen few punish their muscles. She should wear a T-shirt: God’s Gym.
In spite of a son in prison for life, twin girls born dead, a mind- blown son who roams the streets with everything he owns in a shopping cart, a strung-out daughter with a crack baby, a good daughter who miscarried the only child her dry womb ever produced, in spite of me and the rest of my limpalong, near-to-normal siblings and their childrenmy nephews doping and gangbanging, nieces unwed, underage, dropping babies as regularly as the seasonsin spite of breast cancer, sugar diabetes, hypertension, failing kidneys, emphysema, gout, all resident in her body and epidemic in the community, knocking off one by one her girlhood friends, in spite of corrosive poverty and a neighborhood whose streets are no longer safe even for gray, crippled-up folks like her, my mom loves her god, thanks him for the blessings he bestows, keeps her faith he would not pile on more troubles than she could bear. Praises his name and prays for strength, prays for more weight so it won’t fall on those around her less able to bear up.
You’ve seen those iron-pumping, muscle-bound brothers fresh out the slam who show up at the playground to hoop and don’t get picked on a team cause they can’t play a lick, not before they did their bit, and sure not now, back on the set, stiff and stone-handed as Frankenstein, but finally some old head goes on and chooses one on his squad because the brother’s so huge and scary-looking sitting there with his jaw tight, lip poked out, you don’t want him freaking out and kicking everybody’s ass just because the poor baby’s feelings is hurt, you know what I mean, the kind so buff looks like his coiled-up insides about to bust through his skin or his skin’s stripped clean off his body so he’s a walking anatomy lesson. Well, that’s how my mom looks to me sometimes, her skin peeled away, no secrets, every taut nerve string on display.
I can identify the precise moment when I began to marvel at my mother’s prodigious strength, during a trip with her one afternoon to the supermarket on Walnut Street in Shadyside, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, white community with just a few families of us colored sprinkled at the bottom ends of a couple of streets. I was very young, young enough not to believe I’d grow old, just bigger. A cashier lady who seemed to be acquainted with my mother asked very loudly, Is this your son, and Mom smiled in reply to the cashier’s astonishment, saying calmly, Yes, he is, and the doughy white lady in her yellow Krogers smock with her name on the breast tried to match my mother’s smile but only managed a fake grin like she’d just discovered shit stinks but didn’t want anybody else to know she knew. Then she blurted, He’s a tall one, isn’t he.
Not a particularly unusual moment as we unloaded our shopping cart and waited for the bad news to ring up on the reeeeegister. The three of us understood, in spite of the cashier’s quick shuffle, what had seized her attention. In public situations the sight of my pale, Caucasian-featured mother and her variously colored kids disconcerted strangers. They gulped. Stared. Muttered insults. We were visible proof somebody was sneaking around after dark, breaking the apartheid rule, messy mulatto exceptions to the rule, trailing behind a woman who could be white.
Nothing special about the scene in Krogers. Just an ugly moment temporarily reprieved from turning uglier by the cashier’s remark, which attributed her surprise to a discrepancy in height, not color. But the exchange alerted me to a startling factI was taller than my mother. The brown boy, me, could look down at the crown of his light-skinned mother’s head. Obsessed by size, like most adolescent boys, size in general and the size of each and every particular part of my body and how mine compared to others, I was always busily measuring and keeping score, but somehow I’d lost track of my mother’s size, and mine relative to hers. Maybe because she was beyond size. If someone had asked me my mother’s height or weight, I probably would have replied, Huh. Ubiquitous, I might say now. A tiny skin- and-bone woman way too huge for size to pin down.
The moment in Krogers is also when I began to marvel at my mother’s strength. Unaccountably, unbeknown to me, my body had grown larger than hers, yes, and the news was great in a way, but more striking and not so comforting was the fact that, never mind my advantage in size, I felt hopelessly weak standing there beside my mom in Krogers. A wimpy shadow next to her solid flesh and bones. I couldn’t support for one hot minute a fraction of the weight she bore on her shoulders twenty-four hours a day. The weight of the cashier’s big-mouthed disbelief. The weight of hating the pudgy white woman forever because she tried to steal my mother from me. The weight of cooking and cleaning and making do with no money, the weight of fighting and loving us iron-headed, ungrateful brats. Would I always feel puny and inadequate when I looked up at the giant fist hovering over our family, the fist of God or the Devil, ready to squash us like bugs if my mother wasn’t always on duty, spreading herself thin as an umbrella over our heads, her bones its steel ribs keeping the sky from falling.
Reaching down for the brass handle of this box I must lift to my shoulder, I need the gripping strength of my mother’s knobby-knuckled fingers, her superhero power to bear impossible weight.
Since I was reading her this story over the phone (I called it a story but Mom knew better), I stopped at the end of the paragraph above that you just completed, if you read that far, stopped because the call was long distance, daytime rates, and also because the rest had yet to be written. I could tell by her silence she was not pleased. Her negative reaction didn’t surprise me. Plenty in the piece I didn’t like either. Raw, stuttering stuff I intended to improve in subsequent drafts, but before revising and trying to complete it, I needed her blessing.
Mom’s always been my best critic. I depend on her honesty. She tells the truth yet never affects the holier-than-thou superiority of some people who believe they occupy the high ground and let you know in no uncertain terms that you nor nobody else like you ain’t hardly coming close. Huh-uh. My mother smiles as often as she groans or scolds when she hears gossip about somebody behaving badly. My, my, my, she’ll say, and nod and smile and gently broom you, the sinner, and herself into the same crowded heap, no one any better than they should be, could be, absolute equals in a mellow sputter of laughter she sometimes can’t suppress, hiding it, muffling it with her fist over her mouth, nodding, remembering how people’s badness can be too good to be true, My, my, my.
Well, my story didn’t tease out a hint of laugh, and forget the 550 miles separating us, I could tell she wasn’t smiling either. Why was she holding back the sunshine that could forgive the worst foolishness. Absolve my sins. Retrieve me from the dead-end corners into which I paint myself. Mama, please. Please, please, please, don’t you weep. And tell ole Martha not to moan. Don’t leave me drowning like Willie Boy in the deep blue sea. Smile, Mom. Laugh. Send that healing warmth through the wire and save poor me.
Was it the weightlifting joke, Mom. Maybe you didn’t think it was funny.
Sorry. Tell the truth, I didn’t see nothing humorous about any of it. God’s T-shirt. You know better. Ought to be ashamed of yourself. Taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Where do you get such ideas, boy. I think I know my children. God knows I should by now, shouldn’t I. How am I not supposed to know you- all after all you’ve put me through beating my brains out to get through to you. Yes, yes, yes. Then one you-all goes and does something terrible I never would have guessed was in you. Won’t say you break my heart. Heart’s been broke too many times. In so many little itty-bitty pieces can’t break down no more, but you-all sure ain’t finished with me, are you. Still got some new trick in you to lay on your weary mother before she leaves here.
Guess I ought to be grateful to God an old fool like me’s still around to be tricked. Weightlifter. Well, it’s different. Nobody ain’t called me nothing like weightlifter before. It’s different, sure enough.
Now here’s where she should have laughed. She’d picked up the stone I’d bull’s-eyed right into the middle of her wrinkled brow, between her tender, brown, all-seeing eyes, lifted it and turned it over in her hands like a jeweler with a tiny telescope strapped to his skull inspecting a jewel, testing its heft and brilliance, the marks of God’s hands, God’s will, the hidden truths sparkling in its depths, multiplied, splintered through mirroring facets. After such a brow-scrunching examination, isn’t it time to smile. Kiss and make up. Wasn’t that Mom’s way. Wasn’t that how she handled the things that hurt us and hurt her. Didn’t she ease the pain of our worst injuries with the balm of her everything’s-going-to-be-all-right-in-the-morning smile. The smile that takes the weight, every hurtful ounce, and forgives, the smile licking our wounds so they scab over and she can pick them off our skin, stuff their lead weight into the bulging sack of all sorrows slung across her back.
The possibility that my wannabe story had actually hurt her dawned on me. Or should I say bopped me upside my head like the Br’er Bear club my middle brother loads in his cart to discourage bandits. I wished I was sitting at the kitchen table across from her so I could check for damage, her first, then check myself in the mirror of those soft, brown, incredibly loving mother’s eyes. If I’d hurt her even a teeny-tiny bit, I’d be broken forever unless those eyes repaired me. Yet even as I regretted reading her the clumsy passage and prepared myself to surrender wholly, happily to the hounds of hell if I’d harmed one hair on her frail gray head, I couldn’t deny a sneaky, smarting tingle of satisfaction at the thought that maybe, maybe words I’d written had touched another human being, mama mia or not.
Smile, Mom. It’s just a story. Just a start. I know it needs more work. You were supposed to smile at the weightlifting part.
God not something to joke about.
C’mon, Mom. How many times have I heard Reverend Fitch cracking you up with his corny God jokes.
Time and a place.
Maybe stories are my time and place, Mom. You know. My time and place to say things I need to say.
No matter how bad it comes out sounding, right. No matter you make a joke of your poor mother . . .
Poor mother’s suffering. You were going to say, Poor mother’s suffering, weren’t you.
You heard what I said.
And heard what you didn’t say. I hear those words too. The unsaid ones, Mom. Louder sometimes. Drowning out what gets said, Mom.
Whoa. We gon let it all hang out this morning, ain’t we, son. First that story. Now you accusing me of your favorite trick, that muttering under your breath. Testing me this morning, aren’t you. What makes you think a sane person would ever pray for more weight. Ain’t those the words you put in my mouth. More weight.
And the building shook. The earth rumbled. More weight descended like God’s fist on his Hebrew children. Like in Lamentations. The book in the Bible. The movie based on the book based on what else, the legend of my mother’s longsuffering back.
Because she had a point.
People with no children can be cruel. Had I heard it first from Oprah, the diva of suffering my mother could have become if she’d pursued show biz instead of weightlifting. Or was the damning phrase a line from one of Gwen Brooks’s abortion blues. Whatever their source, the words fit, and I was ashamed. I do know better. A bachelor and nobody’s daddy, but still my words have weight. Like sticks and stones, words can break bones. Metaphors can pull you apart and put you back together all wrong. I know what you mean, Mom. My entire life I’ve had to listen to people trying to tell me I’m just a white man in a dark skin.
Give me a metaphor long enough and I’ll move the earth. Somebody famous said it. Or said something like that. And everybody, famous or not, knows words sting. Words change things. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
On the other hand, Mom, metaphor’s just my way of trying to say two things, be in two places at once. Saying goodbye and hello and goodbye. Many things, many places at once. You know, like James Cleveland singing our favorite gospel tune, “I Stood on the Banks of the Jordan.” Metaphors are very short songs. Mini-mini-stories. Rivers between, like the Jordan where ships sail on, sail on and you stand and wave goodbye- hello, hello-goodbye.
Weightlifter just a word, just play. I was only teasing, Mom. I didn’t mean to upset you. I certainly intended no harm. I’d swallow every stick of dynamite it takes to pay for a Nobel prize before I’d accept one if it cost just one of your soft, curly hairs.
Smile. Let’s begin again.
It’s snowing in Massachusetts / The ground’s white in O-hi-o. Yes, it’s snowing in Massachusetts / And ground’s white in O-hi-o. Shut my eyes, Mr. Weatherman / Can’t stand to see my baby go.
When I called you last Thursday evening and didn’t get an answer I started worrying. I didn’t know why. We’d talked Tuesday and you sounded fine. Better than fine. A lift and lilt in your voice. After I hung up the phone Tuesday, said to myself, Mom’s in good shape. Beat-up but her spirit’s strong. Said those very words to myself more than once Tuesday. Beat-up but her spirit’s strong. The perkiness I sensed in you helped make my Wednesday super. Early rise. Straight to my desk. Two pages before noon and you know me, Mom. Two pages can take a week, a month. I’ve had two- page years. I’ve had decades dreaming the one perfect page I never got around to writing. Thursday morning reams of routine and no pages but not to worry, I told myself. After Wednesday’s productivity, wasn’t I entitled to some down time. Just sat at my desk, pleased as punch with myself till I got bored feeling so good and started a nice novel, Call It Sleep. Dinner at KFC buffet. Must have balled up fifty napkins trying to keep my chin decent. Then home to call you before I snuggled up again with the little Jewish boy, his mama, and their troubles in old NYC.
Let your phone ring and ring. Too late for you to be out unless you had a special occasion. And you always let me know well ahead of time when something special coming up. I tried calling a half-hour later and again twenty minutes after that. By then nearly nine, close to your bedtime. I was getting really worried now. Couldn’t figure where you might be. Nine-fifteen and still no answer, no clue what was going on.
Called Sis. Called Aunt Chloe. Nobody knew where you were. Chloe said she’d talked with you earlier, just like every other morning. Sis said you called her at work after she got back from lunch. Both of them said you sounded fine. Chloe said you’d probably fallen asleep in your recliner and left the phone in the bedroom or bathroom and your hearing’s to the point you can be wide awake but if the TV’s on and the phone’s not beside you or the ringer’s not turned to high, she said sometimes she has to ring and hang up, ring and hang up two, three times before she catches you.
Chloe promised to keep calling every few minutes till she reached you. Said, They have a prayer meeting Thursdays in your mother’s building and she’s been saying she wants to go and I bet she’s there, honey. She’s all right, honey. Don’t worry yourself, okay. We’re old and fuddle-headed now, but we’re tough old birds. Your mother’s fine. I’ll tell her to call you soon’s I get through to her. Your mom’s okay, baby. God keeps an eye on us.
You know Aunt Chloe. She’s your sister. Five hundred miles away and I could hear her squeezing her large self through the telephone line, see her pillow arms reaching for the weight before it comes down on me.
Why would you want to hear any of this. You know what happened. Where you were. You know how it all turned out.
You don’t need to listen to my conversation with Sis. Dialing her back after we’d been disconnected. The first time in my life I think my sister ever phoned me later than ten o’clock at night. First time a lightning bolt ever disconnected us. Ever disconnected me from anybody ever.
Did you see Eva Wallace first, Mom, coming through your door, or was it the busybody super you’ve never liked since you moved in. Something about the way she speaks to her granddaughter, you said. Little girl’s around the building all day because her mother’s either in the street or the slam and the father takes the child so rarely he might as well live in Timbuktu so you know the super doesn’t have it easy and on a couple of occasions you’ve offered to keep the granddaughter when the super needs both hands and her mind free for an hour. You don’t hold the way she busies up in everybody’s business or the fact the child has to look out for herself too many hours in the day against the super, and you’re sure she loves her granddaughter, you said, but the short way she talks sometimes to a child that young just not right.
Who’d you see first pushing open your door. Eva said you didn’t show up after you said you’d stop by for her. She waited a while, she said, then phoned you and got no answer and then a friend called her and they got to running their mouths and Eva said she didn’t think again about you not showing up when you were supposed to until she hung up the phone. And not right away then. Said as soon as she missed you, soon as she remembered you-all had planned on attending the Thursday prayer meeting together, she got scared. She knows how dependable you are. Even though it was late, close to your bedtime, she called you anyway and let the phone ring and ring. Way after nine by then. Pulled her coat on over her housedress, scooted down the hall, and knocked on your door cause where else you going to be. No answer so she hustled back to her place and phoned downstairs for the super and they both pounded on your door till the super said, We better have a look just in case, and unlocked your apartment. Stood there staring after she turned the key, trying to see through the door, then slid it open a little and both of them, Eva said, tiptoeing in like a couple of fools after all that pounding and hollering in the hall. Said she never thought about it at the time but later, after everything over and she drops down on her couch to have that cigarette she knew she shouldn’t have with her lungs rotten as they are and hadn’t smoked one for more than a year but sneaks the Camel she’d been saving out its hiding place in a baggie in the freezer and sinks back in the cushions and lights up, real tired, real shook up and teary, she said, but couldn’t help smiling at herself when she remembered all that hollering and pounding and then tipping in like a thief.
It might have happened that way. Being right or wrong about what happened is less important sometimes than finding a good way to tell it. What’s anybody want to hear anyway. Not the truth people want. No-no-no. People want the best-told story, the lie that entertains and turns them on. No question about it, is there. What people want. What gets people’s attention. What sells soap. Why else do the biggest, most barefaced liars rule the world.
Hard to be a mother, isn’t it, Mom. I can’t pretend to be yours, not even a couple minutes’ worth before I go to pieces. I try to imagine a cradle with you lying inside, cute, miniature bedding tucked around the tiny doll of you. I can almost picture you asleep in it, snuggled up, your eyes shut, maybe your thumb in your mouth, but then you cry out in the night, you need me to stop whatever I’m doing and rush in and scoop you up and press you to my bosom, lullaby you back to sleep. I couldn’t manage it. Not the easy duty I’m imagining, let alone you bucking and wheezing and snot, piss, vomit, shit, blood, you hot and throbbing with fever, steaming in my hands like the heart ripped fresh from some poor soul’s chest.
Too much weight. Too much discrepancy in size. As big a boy as I’ve grown to be, I can’t lift you.
Will you forgive me if I cheat, Mom. Dark-suited, strong men in somber ties and white shirts will lug you out of the church, down the stone steps, launch your gleaming barge into the black river of the Cadillac’s bay. My brothers won’t miss me not handling my share of the weight. How much weight could there be. Tiny, scooped-out you. The tinny, fake wood shell. The entire affair’s symbolic. Heavy with meaning, not weight. You know. Like metaphors. Like words interchanged as if they have no weight or too much weight, as if words are never required to bear more than they can stand. As if words, when we’re finished mucking with them, go back to just being words.
The word trouble. The word sorrow. The word by-and-by.
I was wrong and you were right, as usual, Mom. So smile. Certain situations, yours for instance, being a mother, suffering what mothers suffer, why would anyone want to laugh at that. Who could stand in your shoes a heartbeatshoes, shoes, everybody got to have shoesbear your burdens one instant and think it’s funny. Who ever said it’s OK to lie and kill as long as it makes a good story.
Smile. Admit you knew from the start it would come to this. Me trembling, needing your strength. It has, Mom, so please, please, a little-bitty grin of satisfaction. They say curiosity kills the cat and satisfaction brings it back. Smiling. Smile, Mom. Come back. You know I’ve always hated spinach but please spoonfeed me a canful so those Popeye muscles pop in my arms. I meant shapeshifter, not weightlifter. I meant the point of this round, spinning-top earth must rest somewhere, on something or someone. I meant you are my sunshine. My only sunshine.
The problem never was the word weightlifter, was it. If you’d been insulted by my choice of metaphor, you would have let me know, not by silence but by nailing me with a quick, funny, signifying dig, and then you would have smiled or laughed and we’d have gone on to the next thing. What must have bothered you, stunned you, was what I said into the phone before I began reading. Said this is about a man scared he won’t survive his mother’s passing.
That’s what upset you, wasn’t it. Saying goodbye to you. Practicing for your death in a story. Trying on for size a world without you. Ignoring, like I did when I was a boy, your size. Saying aloud terrible words with no power over us as long as we don’t speak them.
So when you heard me let the cat out the bag, you were shocked, weren’t you. Speechless. Smileless. What could you say. The damage had been done. I heard it in your first words after you got back your voice. And me knowing your lifelong, deathly fear of cats. Like the big, furry orange tom you told me about, how it curled up on the porch just outside your door, trapping you a whole August afternoon inside the hotbox shanty in Washington, D.C., when I lived in your belly.
Why would I write a story that risks your life. Puts our business in the street. I’m the oldest child, supposed to be the man of the family now. No wonder you cried, Oh Father. Oh Son. Oh Holy Ghost. Why hast thou forsaken me. I know you didn’t cry that. You aren’t Miss Oprah. But I sure did mess up, didn’t I. Didn’t I, Mom. Up to my old tricks. Crawling up inside you. My weight twisting you all out of shape.
I asked you once about the red sailor cap hanging on the wall inside your front door. Knew it was my brother’s cap on the nail, but why that particular hat, I asked, and not another of his countless fly sombreros on display. Rob, Rob, man of many lids. For twenty years in the old house, now in your apartment, the hat a shrine no one allowed to touch. You never said it, but everybody understood the red hat your good-luck charm, your mojo for making sure Rob would get out the slam one day and come bopping through the door, pluck the hat from the wall, and pull it down over his bean head. Do you remember me asking why the sailor cap. You probably guessed I was fishing. Really didn’t matter which cap, did it. Point was you chose the red one and why must always be your secret. You could have made up a nice story to explain why the red sailor cap wound up on the nail and I would have listened as I always listened, all ears, but you knew part of me would be trying to peek through the words at your secret. Always a chance you might slip up and reveal too much. So the hat story and plenty others never told. The old folks had taught you that telling another person your secret wish strips it of its power, a wish’s small, small chance, as long as it isn’t spoken, to influence what might happen next in the world. You’d never tell anyone the words sheltered in the shadow of your heart. Still, I asked about the red sailor cap because I needed to understand your faith, your weightlifting power, how you can believe a hat, any fucking kind of hat, could bring my baby brother home safe and sound from prison. I needed to spy and pry. Wiretap the telephone in your bosom. Hear the words you would never say to another soul, not even on pain of death.
How would such unsaid words sound, what would they look like on a page. And if you had uttered them, surrendered your stake in them, forfeited their meager, silent claim to work miracles, would it have been worth the risk, even worth the loss, to finally hear the world around you cracking, collapsing, changing as you spoke your little secret tale.
Would you have risen an inch or two from this cold ground. Would you have breathed easier after releasing the heaviness of silent words hoarded so unbearably, unspeakably long. Let go, Mom. Shed the weight just once.
Not possible for you, I know. It would be cheating, I know. The man of unbending faith did not say to the hooded inquisitors piling a crushing load of stones on his chest, More light. More light. No. I’m getting my quotes mixed up again. Just at the point the monks thought they’d broken his will, just as spiraling fractures started splintering his bones, he cried, More bricks. More bricks.
I was scared, Mom. Scared every cotton-picking day of my life I’d lose you. The fear a singsong taunt like tinnitis ringing in my ear. No wonder I’m a little crazy. But don’t get me wrong. Not your fault. I don’t blame you for my morbid fears, my unhappiness. It’s just that I should have confessed sooner, long, long ago, the size of my fear of losing you. I wish you’d heard me say the words. How fear made me keep my distance, hide how much I depended on your smile. The sunshine of your smiling laughter that could also send me silently screaming out the room in stories I never told you because you’d taught me as you’d been taught, not to say anything aloud I didn’t want to come true. Nor say out loud the things I wished to come true. Doesn’t leave a hell of a lot to say, does it. No wonder I’m tongue-tied, scared shitless.
But would it be worth the risk, worth failing, if I could find words to tell our story and also keep us covered inside it, work us invisibly into the fret, the warp and woof of the story’s design, safe there, connected there as words in perfect poems, the silver apples of the moon, golden apples of the sun, blue guitars. The two of us like those rhyming pairs never and forever, heart and part, in the doo-wop songs I harmonized with the fellas in the alley around the corner from Henderson’s barbershop up on Frankstown Avenue, first me, then lost brother Sonny and his crew, then baby brother Rob and his cut-buddy hoodlums rapping, and now somebody else brown and young and wild and pretty so the song lasts forever and never ever ends even though the voices change back there in the alley where you can hear bones rattling in the men’s fists, fever in the funkhouse looking for a five, and hear wine bottles exploding and the rusty shopping cart squeaking over the cobblestones of some boy ferrying an old lady’s penny-ante groceries home for a nickel once, then a dime, a quarter, four quarters now.
Would it be worth the risk, worth failing.
Shouldn’t I try even if I know the strength’s not in me. No, you say. Yes. Hold on, let go. Do I hear you saying, Everything’s gonna be all right. Saying, Do what you got to do, baby, smiling as I twist my fingers into the brass handle. As I lift.
Copyright © 2005 by John Edgar Wideman. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and most recently the story collection God’s Gym. He is the recipient of two PEN/ Faulkner Awards and has been nominated for the National Book Award. He teaches at Brown University.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
This book was sooooooo disappointing. I saw it in Oprahs' magazine and recommended it to my book club. What a disaster! I found the writing to be long winded and pretentious. Worse, when it finally got to the point - it was always such an anticlimax. It was as though he loves to write, but has nothing to say. The words sounded poetic sometimes, but that barely had any relevance to the story. The stories themselves, had neither ryhme nor reason!! It was torture reading that book, the entire book club, was ready to lynch me!!