“You go on in there and talk to yo Daddy.”
My mother is whispering but emphasizes the word “talk” with a squeeze of my hand as if she thinks some sort of deep revelation between my father and I will break a levee between us, setting free a long-ago dammed-up river of love. I’ve come back to Ohio and am standing in the nursing home where my father lies dying in bed just down the hall. I don’t even want to be here to tell you the truth. I feel little to no connection with the man lying in that bed down the hall. My mother seems to want an emotional scene, the kind that my family has always avoided, so I don’t understand these theatrics. I don’t know why she’s called me here, dropped me in the middle of a soap opera hospital set and commanded me to be an actor. I have no thespian training and I have no emotions from which to draw. The man lying in that room in that bed down this hallway sparks no emotion within me whatsoever.
My mother has been calling me for days, asking me to come here, leaving messages on my answering machine. “Brian, I would like you to come see your father” which evolved into “Brian, you need to come see your father” which mutated into “Brian, you really have to come see your father.” It is the “really have to” that brings me here because even though I feel nothing for the man, I don’t want people to know that I feel nothing for him. So I boarded a Greyhound and left the city to come back to this place. I will miss all the fun of the weekend back in Pittsburgh where my real family and I go out to drink and dance until the late hours. I will call them frequently while I am here in this dying town, where I will be cast in the role of Grieving Son to a man who was cast in the role of Dying Father. My mother is still squeezing my hand and looking at me with an intensity in her eyes, nudging me in the direction of his room. I am confused because she didn’t like him much either, but we have to make a show of it, I guess. “You go on in there and talk to him,” she says again. I play along and start to walk slowly down the hallway toward his room. I wish I were at the club right now where my friends are.
“So, is he like, gonna die, or whatever?”
Annette and I are locked in a bathroom stall together at Metropol. She is slowly arching her neck from being bent over a small mirror she’s placed on the tank of the toilet seat on which she sits backwards. With one finger pressed down plugging her nostril, she inhales deeply so as not to risk spilling any valuable cocaine. The music outside the ladies’ room is nice and loud and we can feel the vibrations even inside our obvious hidey-hole. It gets louder for a few seconds at a time whenever someone opens the door. Annette and I don’t whisper. We don’t need to because every woman in the bathroom has brought her gay inside a toilet stall to do the same thing we’re doing.
“So? Is he?” she repeats when she comes up for air.
“I guess. I don’t know. It looks that way.”
I take the vial of cocaine from her hand and dig around in my pocket for my tiny spoon.
“Damn. That’s deep,” she says as she tilts her head back to check her nostrils in the same mirror for traces of errant blow. I admire this ingenuity. “I’m sorry,” she adds. “That sucks.”
I find my tiny spoon and dig it deep into the cocaine vial in order to get a heaping helping, then maneuver it carefully toward my nostril and suck up a big blast that makes me cough. “It’s not a big deal,” I tell her. The coke is good. I can immediately feel the synthetic taste of it sliding down the back of my throat and numbing my whole mouth. My ears tingle and my jaw is already clenching. I take another large blast and Annette extends her palm. A sign that I need to hand the vial back. She is ready for another. She has laid the tiny mirror out again and is tending to the business of using her bus pass to chop it up into a fine powder to rid it of its rocks. I like to snort the rocks whole and let them dissolve inside me.
“What, was he, like, abusive or something?” she says not looking up.
The cocaine is so good that I’m feeling loose and communicative. The music out in the club begins to thump louder in my ears and my mouth is already beginning to go dry and I am giving in to the high. With my back teeth already beginning to grind, I tell her that my father was not abusive. He was just a Black father, and he behaved like Black fathers are supposed to behave.
“What the hell does that mean?” she asks.
This cocaine is probably the best I’ve ever had. I close my eyes and lean back against the bathroom stall as Annette starts to cut up another line. I let it work its magic on my tongue and I tell her everything I know.
“I mean, I don’t really know him. He used to be part of the family and then he just wasn’t. My father didn’t want me. He wanted an action figure. I was never boy enough for him. His favorite story to tell is when his own father knocked him unconscious. Can you believe that?”
I look to Annette to wait for a reaction. She gives none. I continue.
“He was unconscious for three days because he talked back to his father. ‘He knocked me clean across the room!’ My father tells this story like it’s funny. He said his father told him that it was better for a Black man to beat his son to death than for a white man to kill him. He said he would never let a white man get his hands on his kids. He’d kill them himself first. Toughen ’em up for whitey. And my father doesn’t like women. He once told me that a man’s place is over a woman. Head of the household. He used religion to justify it. ‘That’s the way God intended it,’ he said. He told me that women shouldn’t wear pants. Can you believe that? He actually believes that women shouldn’t wear pants and he believes that if a man wasn’t dominating something, then he isn’t a man, so obviously I am a huge disappointment. He has to know I’m a fag. I mean he just has to. But he doesn’t want to see me. And he likes my brother better. My brother who don’t even look like him like I do. Because my brother played basketball and football and ran track and had a ton of girls hanging off his dick all the time. That’s what a man is to my father.”
Again, I look to Annette for a reaction. Still nothing. This is a good high. I keep going.
“He wrapped everything up in being a ‘man’ and when he lost his job, he just stopped being anything. He faded into the wood paneling. He doesn’t have more than a sixth-grade education, so he couldn’t get another job. The steel mill laid him off and then all he did was lay around the house and complain about women and white people.”
I can’t stop talking and Annette isn’t trying to stop me.
“He told me that a Black man has to be ready to fight always. White people gonna test him. A Black man has to control his woman always. Women gonna test him. And when it became clear that I was gonna do neither, he didn’t want anything to do with me. And now I’m supposed to go running to this bedside and cry some ol’ crocodile tears for a man who chose being a man over just being a father, a human being, a person? So, yeah, I don’t know him and I think it’s a little too late to try to get to know him now. My mother is acting like we were best friends. Can you believe that? I mean, can you believe it?”
Annette dramatically inhales another line, sniffing more loudly than necessary and tilting her head back too far. She begins searching through her backpack for a cigarette, the lighting of which will announce that we’re done in the ladies’ room for now. She shrugs.
“I don’t know, Brian. It could be worse. My daddy was a drunk. Black men have it hard. But you should definitely go see him. You wouldn’t be here without him and that’s gotta be worth something.”
She hands me the vial of coke as she is rifling through her bag, and I quickly scoop up more than my fair share and snort it down before she looks back up. I hand it back to her and ignore her last statement. The drugs now have my head spinning. I continue talking, my mouth still motorized by narcotics.
“After my mother left him he didn’t know what to do couldn’t even feed himself or keep himself clean he moved into an abandoned house can you believe that my father moved into an abandoned house that was falling down all around him and had no heat and no electricity just up the road from my house he lived there by himself with a pile of dirty clothes and a kerosene heater my mother would send us up there to take him food and make sure that he was all right but she would never go herself. she would never go herself. he was an embarrassment he didn’t even try after he got laid off and I didn’t know what to do for him I was just a kid but I knew he was an embarrassment but even then even when he was basically a hobo he kept telling me to take my hand off my hip act like a man stop being a sissy he’s only sick now because he gave up won’t take his medicine won’t eat right won’t do anything except sit around and complain about white folks and women and he just never even tried he gave up so why should I have to put in any effort at all besides I’m not even the son he wanted he wanted my brother who doesn’t even look like him like I do and — ”
Annette cuts me off. “So don’t go then.”
I sniff. She lights the cigarette and drops that vial of good coke into the depths of her backpack. I watch it disappear and suppress the urge to tell her I want more. She stands quickly and flips the lock on the toilet stall and we head out to look into the large mirror at the sinks together. We stand next to each other checking our nostrils and she pats down her afro wig to ensure that the shape is perfectly circular. She reapplies lipstick, rubs her lips together, and then makes kissy faces in the mirror.
“Go see your father. It may be the last time.”
We head out the bathroom door and into the hallway that leads to the club where the music is almost deafening and the people are dancing and the flashing lights in the darkness wait to envelope and distract me.
“You want a drink?” Annette asks me.
Together we walk down the hallway toward all the things that make life worth living.
I take three steps down the hallway and look back at my mother. I hope to catch her eye, but she is looking at the ground, her fingers interlaced, her lips moving silently, talking to her beloved Jesus, another man from whom I have never felt any emotion. I walk to the doorway where I can see my father lying in the last bed he’ll ever occupy. I linger outside for a few seconds until the director yells “Action!” and then I approach my costar. His makeup artist has done an excellent job.
My father is now a dried-apple doll. And while he’s never been a big man, he is even slighter in the wake of illness. The sheets that cover his body don’t have much work to do. I can make out a bump beneath them that is probably his knee. Larger bumps at the foot of the bed. His brittle arms have been placed on top of the sheets and the hand that once loomed large over my childhood lies limply. His head is turned toward me. The skin on his face has collapsed, exhausted, against his skull, which leaves his eyes wide and searching like a newborn’s. His lips move soundlessly. I can’t tell if he sees me. I have no indication that he knows that I’m here. I can feel the director and the crew anxiously awaiting me to deliver my first line but I haven’t read the script.
You go on in there and talk to yo Daddy.
“I have a fish tank,” I say. “In my apartment. There’s only two fish in it right now because they keep dying on me.”
His wide bloodshot eyes are locked on mine and his mouth moves wetly. Maybe he’s trying to say something and it’s now obvious to me that he cannot talk. The camera pans back to me. I haven’t looked in his face in a long time and he’s powerless to stop me from looking deeply into it. He won’t be able to tell anyone that I took in every nook and cranny of his actual face and not what it represented to me. He is not a handsome man. He never was. As I take in his features, I wonder why a woman as pretty as my mother ever married him. He is short and has been balding all my life. His toothless mouth continues to make shapes.
You wouldn’t be here without him and that’s gotta be worth something.
“I guess they took it all from you,” I say to myself, eying my father’s wilted body and taking him all in. He seems to be looking through me.
I’m running through all the things I might say in this performance. I’m running through all the lines, like I guess the white people and the Black women took it all just like you said they were trying to do. And they finally succeeded. And they took everything you thought you were supposed to be and now here you are. And they wouldn’t let you be a man, would they? And that’s all you ever wanted.
The director moves in for a close-up of my face.
And I wish you would have tried to be something else. Something more. Because there had to have been something more you wanted to share with the world.
The camera pans out to show me and my father sitting in the tiny plain room of a nursing home. It’s the perfect father-son shot. It’s the time when I am supposed to lean forward and take his bony hand in mine and tell him how much I love him, which will bring me and the audience to tears. I opt instead to let the clock tick long enough to convince my mother down the hallway that my father and I have had a meaningful goodbye.
I know he loved me. I can feel the power of it taking over the room. He didn’t know how to say it or show it, and now his mouth and body don’t work. He sacrificed so much of himself to be what he thought a Black man is supposed to be. We sit in silence breathing each other’s air until I reckon enough time has passed. I stand and dig my knuckles into my eyes to make them red enough to fool my mother. I don’t know why I don’t feel much. Maybe I’m just an awful son, but it’s far too late to fix things now. I have hidden from him for too long because I know that he’d never approve of who I am, and I never knew who he was. I smooth down my jacket and I head for the door. Just before I walk through it, I turn around to deliver to the audience its final emotional punch. I look directly into the camera.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t enough for you.”
The director yells “Cut!” and the crew swarms to disassemble the set.
Annette and I grab two drinks and hit the dance floor. I am feeling good. I dance with my hands held up high over my head and a boy with no shirt on comes to dance near me. The cocaine has made me bold and I grab him around the waist, which makes the both of us laugh. I press his sweaty torso against me and land a deep kiss on his lips that he arches his neck to accept. The room is swirling, and I am spilling my drink. The coke has made me start to sniff a little and I can feel my body already asking for more. Annette shouts over the music.
“Do you want me to drive you to see your father?!”
“No! I’ll probably just take the bus!”
“Well, just make sure you go! I think you should go!”
I spin around to find the shirtless boy making his way off the dance floor. He gestures for me to follow him. I bet he has cocaine. I leave Annette spinning on the dance floor and follow him toward the men’s room.
A hundred miles away, my father lies alone in a silent room in the last bed that will ever hold him. He stares up at the ceiling unable to speak. He is thinking of me and wondering when I will come to visit. He remembers silencing my squeal when he bought me a Betta splendens. He remembers all the things he told me that were for girls. Singing in the choir and spelling bees. He snatches my hand away from its effeminate position on my hip. He thinks back to when he clandestinely removed a small pink shirt from his house in the middle of the night, dropped it in the rusty steel bin out back, and watched it burn as the light from the flames flickered off his face. He recalls the shape of every ball he placed in my hands and the way they all rejected me. He remembers the way his knuckles felt as they struck the side of my face. He remembers all the ways in which he tried to make me act like a man. For my own good.
Shake it off. Be a man. Be more than a man. Be a Black man.