Going Where the Southern Cross the Dog: A Column About the Blues
Jason Edward Harrington always had the blues in his blood, though mostly made manifest in somber displays of his ABCs, as opposed to lyrical arrangements of A-A-B. Three years ago, however, he began to fully explore his bluesy heritage as the son of Chicago bluesman Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. He shares the fruits of that musical journey, along with other things pertaining to the blue note, here.
Black Orphans and Laugh Tracks, Part I.
Continent, island, islet, speck—and then the little boy was gone.
So goes the final sentence of a short story I once wrote about my parents’ divorce. I birthed it in my early-20s, not long after moving into my father and stepmother’s house for a brief period. I considered it to be a secret and audacious labor, this somewhat unflattering portrayal of my father and his infidelities, composed there right beneath his roof. I wrote it mostly at night, in a low-ceilinged room on the home’s second floor, surrounded by my stepmother’s stuffed animal collection—homemade sock monkeys and terrycloth bears, shaggy brown bunnies and plush mythical creatures. It was a fevered effort, carried out beneath the cold gaze of button-black eyes.
The story was about a kid named Junior (me) being visited by a series of paranormal events, coinciding with the days leading up to his parents’ final separation and divorce. An apparition begins appearing— the ghost of a little boy who reveals himself only to the young protagonist. Over the course of several Poltergeist happenings (all revolving around the inexplicable rearrangement of furniture: the opening of the story has the father’s recliner levitate to the ceiling and remain suspended there for several days, for instance) the mother and father continue deadpan bickering, as though nothing strange is going on. The mysterious occurrences all build toward the final scene, in which the young protagonist realizes that his father is going to be leaving the house, per his parents’ looming divorce; the paranormal events having only been, perhaps, symbolic of the psychic stress of a son losing a father from the household. I intended it to be a satirical wink at haunted house stories.
All in all, I thought it was a good story. Years later, it ended up being selected for publication in a college anthology. I was thrilled to see my sustained effort at fiction in print for the first time. At the time I was living with three Craigslist roommates, all of whom gamely pretended to read the story and agreed that it was good.
All of my roommates, that is, except for the Haitian.
The Haitian was the last of the four roommates to answer the landlord’s Craigslist ad. He was a near total mystery to me and the other two roommates. He told us he was in grad school, though what kind of program we never found out. Several times we’d asked him what he was studying to be.
“I am not studying to become something. Rather, I am studying how it is that some things become,” was all he would say, locking us in a Sphinx-like gaze.
The only thing we ever found out for certain regarding the Haitian was that he was, almost certainly, not Haitian. He was short, brown-skinned, and had been overheard speaking something like French on Skype, and so we christened him the Haitian, a label he resented until the end. Though he was in his late 20s, The Haitian walked with a cane—though it was not really a cane, but rather an umbrella.
“In case it rains,” he explained, clicking the tip of the umbrella, tap, tap, tap, along the sun-dappled wooden floor.
Impeccably dressed, he often went around with French-language books of literary criticism tucked beneath his arm. I found this intimidating. He seemed to be cruel and unsparing in his opinions on all matters; determined to critically squeeze the life out of small, harmless things like an adolescent sociopath.
I needed this man to read my story and offer feedback.
Reluctantly, he agreed. He took the anthology one evening and disappeared into his room. I monitored the light beneath the crack of his door until midnight, trying to read him reading me in the shifting shadows. For weeks, I tried to catch him in order to get his critique, but somehow, he always eluded me.
Finally, one day, I ran into him, paring an apple in the kitchen.
Yes, he’d read it, he said, flashing into his room and then returning, anthology in hand. I asked him what he thought. He looked at me as though breaking the news to a cuckolded man.
“The text does not say what you think it says,” he told me. “It betrays itself. I am sorry.”
Having been unaware that texts were even capable of betraying themselves, I was at a loss. I searched his dark eyes for signs of the circle-round back to unqualified praise that I was sure was coming, but he only looked upon with me pity.
“Merde,” he elaborated. “Shit.”
He then began unraveling everything.
“Your text sets itself up,” the Haitian explained, “as a self-reflexive play on the mystery story genre. At its core is an original/parody opposition. Ultimately, however, the text is chained to the very same range of clichés from which it attempts to be at a remove; incapable of escaping the trite conventions of the genre it means to subvert. There are several manifestations of this within your story. Immediately, in the very first paragraph, the protagonist is watching television—a parody of ‘reality’—but we never learn what is on the television, save for, tellingly, a commercial (the locus of superficiality in the TV universe) which modifies a ‘break,’ as well as a Ghostbusters cartoon. Your story’s protagonist is not really watching a Ghostbusters cartoon. The program was obviously chosen by the author for humorous effect, a contextual pun, which in itself betrays the contradictions of that which is reproduced in the text—this reproduction, this ‘parody,’ is ensnared in its duplicity (much like the ‘ghost traps’ employed by Venkman, Spengler, et al.). Indeed, the entire text—perhaps even the author—can be read as one giant ‘busting’ of itself, the author as ‘busted.’ The absence of what was really on the TV is more significant than the presence of the text’s claims to occurrence.
“Furthermore, the text superficially strives toward exploration of racial issues, and to this end an engagement with the light/dark opposition is at play beneath the surface, with darkness of course being privileged by the text.”
“In your text,” the Haitian told me, “the father is described as being, paradoxically, ‘as black as the torchiere lamp beside him,’ the word ‘lamp’ being from the Greek, lampein (to shine). And so, we uncover, this ‘father’ of yours is as black as something that itself sources light: even blackness is attempted to be made light within the text. The text is striving toward erasure of the black, both by bringing the blackness in contact with signifiers of lightness, and by subsuming it further into darkness (the “darkness of death.”) This reveals (or shines upon — lampein — it lamps) an aporia associated with the father, his blackness, and, it follows, the blackness of the son, who is white/black, much like the president of present.”
“Because blackness is under erasure within this text, it should accordingly be struck through for a closer representation of its signification, i.e.
“The clumsy attempt by the text to serve itself up for a Freudian reading by portraying the son alone in bed with his mother out of fear of the ghost that has visited the house does not merit comment. However, what is not said by the text concerning the son’s subconscious desire to rid himself of paternal authority is key.”
“The protagonist—you,” the Haitian said, jabbing at me with an apple wedge—“would like to free yourself of the father. In fact, the text (the Father) would like to free itself of its Self (evidenced by the father leaving the protagonist’s mother for another woman, ‘Mama Bear’ as a found letter reveals). The protagonist is not saddened by the departure of the father from the household, as is implied by the saccharine pathos of the story’s conclusion (where the style and tone of the story is suddenly disrupted with a trite, fault line shift to allegorical mode: ‘the frozen ground in which the little boy was buried could not be broken, for there are some things that only a father can do’). Rather, the son and the text are happy to be rid of the black father and his authority of form; to have ‘killed’ him off by sending him driving off into the night, commencing the child support and sporadic visitation arrangement that would forever thereafter define the protagonist’s relationship to the father.”
“And the protagonist, ‘you’ (here The Haitian actually used air quotes) wanted to be rid of your father…”
The Haitian began walking back to his room, turned back around only to deliver his conclusion.
“Because he is black.”
He disappeared into his room, and gently closed the door.
I sat down at the kitchen island, rested my elbows on the counter, steepled my fingers out in front of me, and began to consider what had just happened.
I was fairly certain it was all so much mumbo jumbo, these things the Haitian was saying. I knew I had to get him out of the apartment, fast. But still, I could not help but think there may have been something to the notion that I’d written a shit story.
It poured all the livelong Summer of the Short Story, Chicago street puddles crackling with rain. Walking around the city, running The Haitian’s cryptic criticism through my head, I resolved to get to the bottom of this character and his claims, with gumshoe tenacity.
I came back to the apartment one evening post-liquor store walk, my sweatshirt pulled up over my head, rainwater dripping down from the eaves of my hoodie, to find the Haitian sitting at the kitchen island counter, back turned, absorbed in something. I tried to get a read on the details of what it was he was doing, until he turned around suddenly, catching me in the spy act.
“I forgot my umbrella,” was all I could think to say, puddle forming at my feet. He regarded my sodden figure for a moment, and then went back to work with redoubled intensity.
The Haitian built scale models as a hobby. When he was not in his room or off attending his mysterious classes, he was always to be found bent over our kitchen’s island counter, working with infinite patience on miniature dioramas. For the entire duration of his time in the apartment the Haitian’s work was centered around shoebox circuses— plastic performers and papier-mâché elephants reared up on their haunches, toy lions, tigers, clowns and acrobats portrayed mid-swing, legs wrapped around toothpick trapeze bars, arms outstretched to each other, frozen at the point of near finger touch.
I was jealous of this absolute control he seemed to command over his little worlds; the control which eluded me in my text. I wanted the Haitian to tell me he’d re-thought my story; discovered it had said something else. Wanted him to speak to me with kind words; curl his index finger and lavish my underchin with kitten-soft strokes—lull me with reassurances that I hadn’t actually wanted my father to leave my childhood household; that I was not ashamed of my black heritage; that I did not want my father to be subsumed by the darkness that was privileged by my text.
I prepared to rewrite the story to address his criticism; taped index cards with possible new plot points all around my bedroom, so that even my wallpaper would speak of my story, tenderly, at night.
Story arcs descending from the ceiling, swaddling me in my sleep.
In the winter it continued to rain, but now indoors. Our building’s ancient furnace and cast-iron radiators ran around the poles of cold silence and superheated bluster, the latter causing the pipes in our ceiling to groan and leak. In this way, our apartment was drizzly and tropical for much of the winter.
Our slumlord claimed there was nothing he could do about it. Murmurs began to circulate among the roommates of mutiny; of our tenants’ rights to refuse to pay rent, though none of us could find the courage to do it. We were all in debt in some way to the landlord, a manic Colombian émigré with three gold teeth.
The Haitian went where we dared not follow: he simply stopped paying rent, telling the landlord that it was an “exploitative arrangement pushed to the brink of absurdity.” Though the Haitian seemed to be the most outraged by our leaky ceiling, he was also the best suited to it: he continued to work on his dioramas beneath the canopy of his umbrella, as though he’d anticipated the indoor rain all along.
We accused the Haitian’s umbrella of causing the rain.
Launched a PSYOP campaign to get him out of the apartment.
Took turns doing the dishes, loudly, at midnight, when the Haitian was sleeping, right outside his kitchen-flush bedroom door; played Tupperware bowls like bongos, spoons and forks like castanets, all to no effect.
We called him to a roommate meeting and told him that we’d discussed his model-making, told him it was crazy, that we did not want it done in our kitchen. He simply took his models into his room.
I would have called off the witch hunt if only he’d confessed what I considered to be the truth: he’d been wrong about his analysis of my story. I hadn’t really been happy to see my father go. My story’s sentimental shade didn’t constitute bathos. I hadn’t actually been relieved that my father left our house.
There’d been many warm childhood moments with my father, all of which I’d mourned after his departure from the household. The time we watched the anti-Soviet SAC plane floating across the sky as he played his night time blues, for instance. Or the warm exchanges involving my preference of Huey Lewis over him. The beautiful dirty shit I’d learned from hanging around my father and his hard-drinking blues friends.
And the moment near the end of my short story, when my father takes me in his lap to give me an early Christmas present not long before leaving, unwrapping a Black History Month calendar and telling me that it was so I’d “never forget where I’d come from”? Okay, yes. That was mawkish. But these moments had really happened. They were “the truth.”
And can’t a fictive defect be pardoned by a truth?
The publication’s editors tried to kill the story’s closing line: “continent, island, islet, speck: and then the little boy was gone,” on the grounds that it was extraneous. But I held my ground: I’d spent an entire day putting together just that sentence, after all. In the context of the story, I believed it was right; perfectly expressed what my father leaving the house meant for me. My father leaving the house coincided with the end of my childhood. The family life I had known was gone, the little boy evaporated, the continent (“a continuous tract or extent”) melted down. I stood behind that closing sentence, and still do.
Desperately, I photocopied my story and slipped it beneath the Haitian’s door one midnight, hoping he’d consent to dance with me by returning a more reasonably marked-up copy, maybe within a fortnight. Three weeks later, I had resorted to searching the garbage nightly for signs of my rejected story.
One morning, I spotted a mound of paper debris in the trash, mingled with the flaky remains of an onion’s tunic. The text was so finely shredded that it passed through my fingers like soot, its original reading impossible to reconstruct.
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