They Tell Me of a Home
By Daniel Black
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Daniel Omotosho Black
All rights reserved.
"Excuse me, sir," I said apprehensively to the Greyhound bus driver. "Could you let me off at the big oak tree about a mile up the road on the right?"
He studied me through the rearview mirror and frowned, confused.
"See, if you let me off there" — diffidence colored my words — "I won't have so far to walk. My parents' house is just on the other side of those woods." I pointed out the big tinted windshield of the Greyhound bus toward a gathering of trees some distance away. Most would have thought the area uninhabitable, for there was no sign of a human dwelling anywhere in the midst of those trees. Yet the origin of my beginning lay nestled quietly among them.
"I see," he affirmed as he nodded. "I believe I can do that. You's a country boy sho"nuff, ain't chu?" He laughed heartily.
"I guess I am," I responded less enthusiastically.
"Boy, dat sun gon' bake you black as coal! It's got to be a hundred degrees or better today. I hope you brought a hat,'cause if you didn't, you liable to have a sunstroke 'fo' you get home."
"I forgot how hot Arkansas is in the summer," I said, more to myself than to the driver.
"Well, you'bout to be reminded."
I reclined in the seat, preparing myself mentally to walk the two miles I once had walked, years ago, with ease. "Lord have mercy," I mumbled as I grabbed my bags. One of them contained my clothes — three African dashikis and matching pants, two plain white T-shirts, two pair of shorts, some underwear, and some dress shoes — while the other carried books. Armah's Two Thousand Seasons had captured me only days earlier, so I couldn't leave it behind, and I had been reading Some Soul to Keep by J. California Cooper simply too long. A friend recommended Song of Solomon fervently, and after the first couple of pages I saw why. There were others I hadn't started, like The Outsider, but my mind was already cluttered with too many characters, so I decided to finish at least one book before I started another. Leaving things incomplete was a habit I couldn't get rid of, but I had a feeling coming home was going to force me to do so.
The bus pulled off of Highway 64 onto the dirt space in front of the big tree.
"Well, here you are, son," the driver said as he opened the door for me.
"Thank you so much, sir," I returned as I stepped off the bus Saturday afternoon. "I really appreciate this."
"Oh, it ain't no problem," he yelled down to me. "Hope you enjoy yo'self. Tell yo' folks hello fu' me."
"I sure will, sir. Thanks again."
The bus disappeared into the heat wave. I glanced at my watch and murmured, "Two sixteen," as the blistering sun welcomed my deracinated spirit home. It was hotter than any day I could remember. The whirlwind of dust, which the bus left behind, consumed me in a ball of humidity, making breathing practically impossible. It was the kind of heat that pastes clothes to skin during the day and disallows a cool breeze at night. A nice, cool shower would have been divine, but it never helped much in Swamp Creek since, after a moment or two, the sweat returned, even in the shade.
I dropped both bags and, with my hands, shielded my eyes from the scorching sun. Everything looked the same. The Meetin' Tree stood broader, like a great elder watching over a flock of children. We called the tree the Meetin' Tree because that's where folks gathered to socialize and gossip. Every Friday night, people came and listened to John Lee tell lies or watched Miss Liza Mae strip naked as the liquor took effect. As children, my friends and I caught lightning bugs in the field next to the tree as the grown folks told their stories. Sometimes we'd listen, too, but always from a distance. Children didn't sit with elders back in those days.
Uncle James Earl's old abandoned house, on the south side of the highway, was more weathered than it once had been. It leaned now like an old man without a walking cane. Sideboards were sinking inward, causing the house to emit an aura of depression. Rust had completely consumed the tin roof in the last ten years, and in a few places the roof had blown away. The house resembled a person in mourning over the loss of a child. The crumbling porch, barely hanging wooden screen door, and broken windows all reminded me that I hadn't been home in a very long time. Even the famous fruit trees, which once framed Uncle James Earl's house, appeared frail and desolate. It wasn't always this way. One day, when I was about twelve, my cousin Darrell and I sneaked behind Uncle James Earl's old house and prepared to steal some of those juicy peaches. Darrell whispered, "If we get caught, we gonna get a whoopin'!"
"Who gon' catch us?" I murmured intensely.
"Hell, I don't know! You know what they say'bout dis house." Darrell was starting to tremble.
"Man, be cool. We can get what we want and be outta here. Don't start trippin' now."
"I ain't the only one trippin'. You sound like you fixin' to start crying or something."
"No I ain't, nigga. I'm just tryin' to think while you acting like a li'l bitch!" I was scared as hell and Darrell knew it.
"What if the house really is haunted by Uncle James Earl's spirit?" Darrell asked more earnestly than I had ever heard him.
"You don't believe in all that shit, do you?"
He hesitated for a moment and then said, "I don't know. I might."
I didn't say anything more because talking about it was weakening my confidence. We were squatting in the high grass behind Uncle James Earl's house, and our knees were about to give way as we spent an eternity contemplating what we were so sure about an hour earlier.
"We gon' do it or we ain't?" I asked, trying to force the fear out of Darrell.
"Yeah, OK," he responded with a tone of great uncertainty.
"Well, let's go."
We jumped up and ran to the first peach tree we saw. Never had I tasted anything so delicious. We were about to load our sacks when someone hollered, "Git on'way from dat tree, boys! You knows better!" We looked around excitably but didn't see anyone. "Did you hear me, boys?" the voice said again. This time, when we looked around, we saw an old man walking toward us. He had a cane and wore a badly tattered straw hat. One strap of his overalls was unbuckled, and his hair was white as snow. "Run!" I yelled to Darrell, and he obeyed without complaint. We ran to Grandma's house and told her everything.
"Y'all ain't seen nobody," she chuckled.
"Yes, ma'am, we did," we protested. "We saw Uncle James Earl!"
"You boys ain't seen no James Earl! He been dead almost five years."
"I know, Grandma," I was screaming, "but I swear it was him!"
"Well, even if you did see him, you ain't got to holla 'bout it. He can't do too much harm to nobody. Dead folks ain't neva been no bother. It's the livin' you betta worry'bout." And that's all Grandma said about the matter. Darrell and I never spoke again about seeing Uncle James Earl.
I shook my head and laughed as I remembered how crazy Darrell and I used to be. We would get whoopin's every day for something one of us talked the other into doing. Those were precious days.
I turned northward and noticed the pond in Old Man Blue's field glistening like it did when I was a boy. We fished in that pond every chance we got. Grandma would get out her almanac and tell us whether the day was a good fishing day or not, and if it was, we would get our cane poles, dig up some worms, and pray for luck. Sometimes we caught catfish or bream or perch, but most times we simply watched the water.
"You ever seen a girl's thang?" Darrell asked one day while we were fishing.
"Yep," I said proudly without facing him.
"You a lie, boy!" Darrell screamed excitedly.
"No I ain't. I done seen a girl's thang before. For real."
"What does it look like?"
"It's kinda hard to describe."
"OK, OK. Damn." I wanted to sound as grown and unmoved as possible. "I guess it sorta resembles a little hairy bootee. It's right down in between a girl's legs and it's got a split in it. It's got hair all around it, and when she gets ready to have sex, it gets all moist and stuff."
"How you know?" Darrell asked with great inquisitiveness.
"Don't worry'bout how I know, nigga. Dat's my business!"
Darrell resumed watching his cork in the water as he nodded his head in the "Oh, I see" fashion. Actually, except for watching Grandma wash herself in the kitchen Saturday nights, I was completely naive about a woman's genitalia. Yet what I had seen was enough to make Darrell believe I knew more about girls than he did, and of course that was the point.
My memories made me feel as though home were an ancient place. I arrived back in Swamp Creek ten years after I thought I had seen it for the last time. The day after high school graduation, I left Arkansas, promising never to return. People bred hatred in me as a child concerning everything about Swamp Creek. Daddy worked me to death and said, "Dat's life round here, boy." So I had to leave. Hay fields, pea patches, cotton picking — I had had enough. I didn't ever acquire a nostalgic love for the place. What I did enjoy, though, was how people learned to sing their troubles away. Mother Berthine, Miss Iza Lou, and Old Man Blue could line a hymn on Sunday morning and even have sinners calling on the name of the Lord. They would moan and holler as they worked out the angst in their souls and then come the following Sunday and perform the ritual all over again. Miss Iza would cry when she sang, pleading for the Lord "not to move the mountain but to give her the strength to climb." I felt sorry for her because the relief she wanted never seemed to arrive. Yet for some reason she persisted in seeking. I anticipated seeing these old soldiers on Sunday if they were still living.
Ten years and there I was again. I had received a Ph.D. in black studies a month earlier and felt compelled to return to the place of my origin. Exactly why I didn't know, but for some reason I felt the need to go home. My heart, or my head, had begun to twist, to beg for familial clarity, in the last several years, and maybe, I hoped, Swamp Creek could help. Or maybe I dreamed of returning and finding a picturesque family into which I could safely place myself. Whatever the reason, I had a feeling as I stood in front of the old tree that home was going to be anything but sweet.
I walked over and sat underneath the Meetin' Tree. Even there, the air was muggy, but a little shade provided minimal comfort. Grateful to be released from the sun's torturous grip, I threw my head back and noticed that the tree's billions of leaves together took the shape of a beautiful dancer with arms stretched wide and legs perfectly straight beneath her limbs. I remembered years ago how the leaves moved in choreography at the wind's command. Darrell and I stood underneath the tree when it rained and watched the water fall all around us. We were fascinated that fragile leaves could totally block such heavy downpours. "The tree likes us," Darrell proclaimed. "It's kinda like a big umbrella." We would play chase or tag beneath the tree, grateful we could do so and stay perfectly dry in the midst of a storm.
However, the Meetin' Tree didn't do me much good the Saturday I arrived, for even in the shade, I was still dripping with sweat. The long bus ride from New York to Swamp Creek had only added to my frustration, and the growling of my stomach kept me reminded that, on top of heat exhaustion, I was starving. I heard a car race by, and when I turned my head to observe, the glare from the sun made me squint my eyes until they hurt. "Good God!" I said aloud, fishing through my bag for a notebook with which to fan myself. It did no good. Cool air had completely abandoned Swamp Creek. I was sure the sun was laughing at me for having hoped, somehow, that summer in Arkansas wouldn't be blazing hot.
I sat a long time on the old wooden church pew beneath the tree because I needed to assess what my return to Swamp Creek might mean. My sudden reappearance would surely cause some kind of disturbance, although such was not my intention. I had hoped a tenyear hiatus would provide my family and me with sufficient distance for old wounds to heal. Deep within I knew better. Time doesn't heal old scars; it just makes them bearable.
More than anything, I dreaded the encounter with my father. We had never been close — a vulnerability Southern black men rejected — but I had a feeling my unexcused absence might ignite in him unimaginable rage. Fear was what I felt whenever he was around, and somehow he exacerbated my inadequacies without ever saying a word. "I'm a grown man," I reminded myself aloud, but Daddy certainly wouldn't agree. His children would be children forever, at least in his eyes, and his job to feed and clothe us was the only obligation he had embraced. The day my oldest brother, Willie James, ran away from home, Daddy was clearly unmoved. Momma told him, "Somebody need to go find dat boy, Cleatis." Daddy continued eating casually and returned, "Then you go." I was stunned. The third night, Willie James returned battered and worn. "We got to plow dat field tomorrow, boy," Daddy announced as though Willie James never left, "so you betta take yo'ass to bed'steada sittin' up watchin' dat damn TV."
Daddy's work came before anything else. Always. He believed, at the expense of everything, a man ought to work by the sweat of his brow, and Daddy upheld this conviction. He was obsessed with physical labor, afraid that one moment of rest would automatically prove him lazy, and Daddy would never allow anyone the opportunity to call him lazy. This was a principle he lived by and one he made all the rest of us live by, too.
"That boy has got to go to school," Momma said one evening at the dinner table.
"He ain't got to do nothin' but what I tell him," Daddy responded, clearly talking to both Momma and me. "First thang he got to learn is how to work. All dat readin' ain't gon' put no food in his mouth. How a man s'pose' to make a livin', sittin' round on his ass wit' a book in his hands?"
"We ain't living in dem old times no mo', Cleatis," Momma said sternly. "He can't go to school off and on like you makin' him do. He miss too much lesson and be behind and can't catch up. He goin' to school. You may as well get that through yo' thick skull!"
Momma continued eating, confident she had won the battle. Daddy chewed slowly as though planning his retaliation. No one asked me anything.
In public, Momma acted as though my love for reading brought her great joy. Her hope, she proclaimed, was that one day "one of my children make somethin' out of theyselves." I would read anything I could get my hands on. Newspapers, cereal boxes, TV guides, obituaries, and almanacs composed my makeshift library. Momma contradicted herself, though, because she never bought books for me. She wanted a smart child in order to elicit praise in the community. She really didn't enjoy my intelligence, I presumed, for she reminded me constantly of my unwelcomed analysis. "You think you know so damn much," she sneered any time I offered my opinion. Grandma told me not to worry about her. "You jes keep on keepin' on, baby," she said. Usually, the only time I got books was when Grandma brought them home from the white lady's house in which she worked.
Grandma surprised me on my fourteenth birthday. She called me over to her house and said lovingly, "Here, boy," and handed me a battered copy of The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. "Grandma! Oh my God! A book by Dunhar! How did you know? I've always liked Dunbar! Thank you!" I danced around her small living room with a treasure I had never dreamed of possessing. In school, we had read only one Dunbar poem, "We Wear the Mask," but it was enough to convince me of his exceptional literary talent. Grandma smiled as I hugged her, and said, "I wanted you to have yo' own copy so I asked Miss Ruth if I could have this book for my grand-baby. She said OK. I saw how you was lovin' dat other poetry book I brought home, so I thought I'd find a way to git chu one by a black man. Don't let dat book git you in trouble wit' yo' daddy." I knew what she meant. "No, ma'am, I won't," I said and ran out to the barn to read. I was supposed to be feeding the cows but decided I could read awhile before they starved to death. I nestled between two bales of hay and arbitrarily opened the book to a poem called "The Lesson":
My cot was down by a cypress grove, (Continues...)
And I sat by my window the whole night Long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
A mocking-bird's passionate song.
And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
And my life's cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
Of my heart too sad to sing.
Excerpted from They Tell Me of a Home by Daniel Black. Copyright © 2005 Daniel Omotosho Black. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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