My father was the first man I ever loved. He was as assured as a panther. His ebony skin was soft as the surface of coal. The vigorous scent of El Producto cigars was a perfume that clung to him. The worn leather seat of his taxi, a stubborn aroma, had seeped into his pores, and like a baptism the smells rubbed onto me from the palms of his hands.
In school he went as far as the sixth grade, then learned the rest on his own. Part of the rest he bequeathed to me--gold nuggets of fact, myth, legend dropped in the lap of my mind, shiny new pennies meant to be saved. By his own definition he was "a black man and proud of it." Arming me with a measure of this conviction, he unfolded a richly colored tapestry, savored its silken texture and warned me never to forget its worth.
Africa:"It wasn't dark until the white man got there."
Cleopatra: "I don't care WHAT they tell you in school, she was a black woman."
Hannibal: "He crossed the Alps with an army of five hundred elephants."
The Sphinx (pointing with a tobacco-stained index finger to a page in the encyclopedia): "Look at the nose, see how broad it is? That's your nose. That's my nose too."
Bitter, frightening tales of slavery dredged by his great-grandparents from memories that refused to be mute. Passed to him. Passed to me. And when he recounted the exploits of Toussaint L'Ouverture, pausing to remind me that L'Ouverture meant "The Opener," inside his eyes I saw fire and smoke float over the hills of Haiti, and his voice stalked the room amid the clanging of swords, the stomp of heavy boots.
Our most comfortable stage was his taxicab. On frigid winter Saturday afternoons and warm summer evenings, I rode in the front seat with him. Always, it was an adventure. As much as anything else in his life, my father cherished the look of surprise and unease that invaded the faces of white passengers as he regaled them with quotes from Jefferson, Tolstoy or Frederick Douglass. Pouncing on them unawares with the sharpness of his intellect, he brought their blanched faces from behind The Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Their baffled respect, blooming in the form of a generous tip or an awed, "Mister, you're pretty smart," sealed his victory.
Together we visited the homes of women, who plied me with Kool-Aid and cookies and spoke to him in a language of double meanings and invisible but obvious desire. Women adored my father. He took them seriously enough to strip his fantasies before them. He listened as intensely as he spoke, and his reactions confirmed the legitimacy of their dreams. All of his women were like my mother, women who had turned daydream desire into tangible reality through houses, cars, money. All theirs. And, like my mother, these women, who had flexed their muscles in the face of fate and circumstance, looked at him with eyes that said, "I will give this all to you." My father never refused anything. He accepted their allegiance or a loan of money with equal ease as his due. He was a hard, nearly impossible man to love when love meant exclusive rights to his soul. Yet he relied on their steadfastness to enhance the improvisational nature of his life. Hearing their screen doors slam behind us as we walked to my father's cab, I trembled as though implicated in a crime. For, returning home, I met my mother's worried interrogation and watched her large hands tie themselves in knots after I helplessly nodded in assent when she asked if we'd visited Dorothy or Mamie that day.
My father's friends were men with names like Lucky and Sweets, men whose eyes rendered other verdicts on their lives. I watched them develop potbellies and saw gray sprout at their hairlines as they stood, year after year, before the fire-engine-red Coke machine in Sam's Sunoco gas station, waiting for the number to come out. In a shifting, eternal circle, they parried and joked, voices edgy, cloaked in gruff humor as they stood wondering if 301 or 513 would come out that day and "make them a man." Because of his luck with women and money, they called my father Goldie.
They were not his real friends--they feared him too much. Shuddered in the wake of his determination, which cast consideration aside. And they trembled, windswept and lost, in the face of his poorly hidden belief that he was and always would be better than the rest. Much like the characters who peopled the Africa he created for me, and for whom he felt an unbridled affinity, my father viewed his life as a stage. Those around him were an audience from whom he demanded total loyalty but to whom he gave mere lightning flashes of his soul. And I loved him with blind faith. Could never imagine having to forgive him anything. So when I had to, I could not.
My father grabbed life by the arm and wrestled it into squealing submission. My mother cleared the same terrain with a faith and self-possession that both fueled and ruined some of her dreams.
Greensboro, North Carolina, must have fit her like a coat too small, buttons missing, hem unraveling and torn. The town, steeped and cured in humility and patience, could never have imagined her hopes. So at nineteen she fled. One summer night, while her parents and younger brothers slept, she crept out of bed. Crouching on the floor, she retrieved a cardboard suitcase wrapped in string that had been hidden beneath her bed for three days. After pinning a note to her pillow, she walked out into the full-moon night. Standing on the porch, she felt her heart hacking a path out of her chest. Placing the suitcase on the porch, she rubbed her sweating palms on the side of her dress. Crickets echoed in the night air and fireflies illuminated the web of knee-high front-yard grass. And, as on every evening of what had been her life up to then, the pure, heartfelt country silence reached out for her. Struggling out of its grasp, she picked up the suitcase. Licked her lips for courage. And, imagining her mother's face the next morning discovering the empty bed and her wizened hands reaching for the letter, she scurried down the steps. It was 1928 and she was headed north.
Washington, D.C., was as far north as she got. There she settled with a cousin who'd arrived the year before. Her first job was cleaning government office buildings. But soon she discovered more gratifying outlets for her industry. Driven by caution, she scrupulously saved her earnings yet daringly, shrewdly bet small amounts on the numbers. She hit them regularly and plowed the winnings into property. Soon she owned four boarding houses and leased two others, a material affluence which at that time equaled a virtual empire for a black woman. Indeed, my mother was blessed, for she had her own. Each month, when she wrote her parents, she slipped a money order between the pages of the folded letter. And seven years after her arrival in the city dotted with historical monuments and scarred by Jim Crow laws, my mother drove, prosperous and proud, back to Greensboro in her own 1935 Ford.
Her mother sat on the porch in a rocking chair, stringing beans that afternoon. Her feet touched the splintered boards and she set the bowl of beans on the table beside her, stood up and clutched the banister. "Be-A-trice, whose car that you drivin?" she called out with only modest interest.
"It's mine, mama," her daughter called back, parking the car before the house with considerable skill.
"Yes, mama, mine."
My mother was now walking dramatically up the steps to the porch. She wore a dark-purple suit and a hat that resembled a box was perched on her head. Her hands held white gloves and a small brown leather clutch bag.
"You want to go for a ride?" she asked, delighted to be offering such a treat.
Her mother, who had witnessed greater miracles than this every Sunday in church, merely folded her arms and shook her head in disgruntled amazement. "Be-A-trice, can't you write your own folks no more? It's been three months since we last heard from you."
If she'd had her way, my mother would have been an actress. Like the best of them, her presence was irresistible. My father used words to control and keep others at bay. For my mother language was a way to reassure and reward. My father demanded loyalty. My mother inspired it in the host of friends whom she cared for and melded into her life. She was a large, buxom woman, with caramel-colored skin and a serene face that gave little indication of the passion with which she imbued every wish, every commitment. Her hands were large, long-fingered. Serious hands that rendered punishment swiftly and breathlessly, folded sheets and dusted tables in a succession of white folks' homes long after she was mistress of several of her own. Hands that offered unconditional shelter and love. In every picture of her there is freeze-framed a look of sadness rippling across her glance, as though there is still just one more thing she wants to own, to do, to know. She wore perfume, fox fur throws casually slung over her shoulders and lamb coats, as though born to wear nothing less. My father confided to me offhandedly once, "When I met your mother I thought she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen."
She had been married once before. That husband had loved her with a precision and concern my father could never imagine. But after ten years she divorced him, his spirit routed, mauled by years of drinking into a shape she could barely recognize.
My father was her Armageddon. The thirteen years of their marriage, a music box wound too tight, played an off-key song of separation and reunion. The arguments and fights were nearly always murderous. Sculpted like hot wax around the dry bones of their unyielding wills was a love that joined and informed them of each other in ways that were unbearable and soothing. They fought over my father's women. But mostly, with a special viciousness, over power, symbolized by my mother's property. Her will shimmered with so much eloquence and strength that my father felt duty bound to try to break it He almost did.
Year after year he insisted the houses be put in his name. Some were, and my father lost them with obscene swiftness, bartering them to pay his own gambling debts. My mother, now more reckless than wise and entrapped and enshrined by her love for my father, lost the rest. She gambled the way she had lived her life--with everything she had. Soon the modest empire dwindled to one house. Like pearls falling to the floor, the houses scattered, rolling across my mother's hopes into unseen cracks and crevices. Finally, irretrievable.
In the wake of a fight, my father, a wounded lion, would storm out of the house. A chaste calm settled over us all then. A peace so unfamiliar, so welcome that my mother was rarely comfortable with it. Perhaps within it she heard the mocking voice of a solitude she could neither accept nor respect. Maybe she missed the purpose, the scratching, blood-pumping tension my father provided. I think she was afraid. But my father always returned, swaggering, triumphant, forgiven. Pounced on at the front door by me with kisses, arms, legs enfolding. Greeted by my mother with a faint resigned smile that resembled relief.
Still, my mother suffered inside the silence of that marriage. A silence that was loudest during the fight, the argument, the shout. During the last, most bitter years of their union she frequently sought renewal through pilgrimages to the home of her former husband. Some evenings I went with her to his small basement apartment. We ate dinner around a card table in the center of the disheveled but clean room. As a centerpiece, a plastic flower sat in an empty coffee jar. As my mother talked, Mr. Robinson listened gratefully, his gray eyes shining in the dim half-light. The room was stuffed with tightly packed cardboard boxes that sat beneath year-old funeral home calendars tacked to the wall. Sometimes I napped on an iron folding cot in a corner. Drifting between sleep and wakefulness, I heard their voices waltz overhead, hushed but not hiding. My father's women handed him the tools with which to conquer them. Mr. Robinson gave my mother a way to stay alive.
But it was the houses that really mattered. And years after the fact, my mother was never able to understand or forgive herself for losing them. Sunday afternoons she used to pack me, one of her girl friends, and the woman's daughter into her 1958 Pontiac and drive around Washington looking at houses. She sat behind the steering wheel and discussed them with Miss Johnnie Mae as though she was choosing a dress for a special occasion.
In the houses we lived in she paid homage to the home she'd known in Greensboro. For she crowded the mantelpieces and shelves with the same abundance of tiny ceramic knickknacks, doilies and plants, cherished only for Sunday china, that her mother had used to bring grace to the tiny house on McConnell Road. And, as at my grandmother's house, all the houses had large back yards and screened-in back porches. She would put cast-off sofas there in the summer and gossip with the people next door while stirring a pitcher of iced tea. The houses were solid, unequivocal. Proper Victorian houses that demanded a certain majesty of their owners. On Saturday mornings we attacked the house in a frenzy of cleaning. While my mother polished the hardwood floors, I swept down three flights of stairs and hallways that never ended. Dusted the dark-brown massive bureaus in her bedroom, the upright piano, and vacuumed the oriental rug claiming the living room floor.
In the summer I took up residence in the attic. In its cool, spacious recesses I pasted pictures from Life and Look on the walls. Under a loose floorboard I hid reams of poetry and my diary, which charted my anguished journey into adolescence. Most of all, I read books for comfort and salvation.
Leaning against the walls in that secret womb, I read Ivanhoe, Vanity Fair, Tom Jones, Oliver Twist. For two weeks my heart bled over the fate of Emma Bovary. One summer I lay stretched out on blankets there and read all of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. Books simply saved me. Between their pages I transcended the horrors of my parents' marriage and the stark loneliness that regularly ambushed me.
My half sister, ten years my senior, was as gregarious as I was shy, and sallied like a storm cloud over my life. While I was a studious bookworm, she was a sparkling sunburst. Alienated from each other by parentage and age, we paid over and over for the sins of the father, the love of the mother. Surely I symbolized to my sister the end of the possibility of love between our mother and Mr. Robinson. This was my crime. Never could I prove my innocence.
From the Trade Paperback edition.