I began having night terrors, festering fantods, visions of stagnant black waters and fitful dreams from the sweltering winter heat. Our malfunctioning furnace steam-dried the adhesives of the storyboard index cards taped to my wall, so that fragments of my story began fluttering down around me as I slept.
The dreams were of alternate executions of my fatally published story, revolving around a possible excision of the ghost character from the tale, and of ways to address the Haitian’s question as to what it was I’d really been watching on television in the story. I’d been watching a lot of sitcoms at that age. I especially took comfort in ones that had kids who looked like me: Different Strokes, Good Times, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I could not help but notice that all the black kids in the shows I watched did not have fathers. In Good Times, the father dies in episode 1 of season 4. Willis and Arnold obviously didn’t have a father. Will’s father had abandoned him and his mother when he was a boy, and only visited Bel-Air once, episode 24, season 4, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse,” only to abandon him again. Webster lost his father and his mother before being adopted by white people.
I hadn’t actually seen much of my father, growing up. He was usually on the road playing blues clubs, or in bed, recovering. I didn’t know anything about my father’s father, or what kind of relationship they had, until recently. I have a black half-brother I still haven’t met.
In traditional blues, you’ll never hear a song about a sunset, or family life, except as it pertains to abandonment.
Maybe I could have metaphorically touched upon the historically disproportionate percentage of non-custodial black fathers in American households by having my protagonist interacting with the characters he was watching on TV.
A parade of black orphans of sorts, overlaid with laugh tracks.
(In episode 1 of Good Times, “Too Old Blues,” J.J. Evans stands at an easel in his Chicago Cabrini Green housing project apartment, painting a portrait of a black Jesus. Enter 14 year-old JASON HARRINGTON.)
JASON HARRINGTON: J.J., do you think you’ll be sad when the show’s producers kill your father off in season 4, and are then forced to replace the actress who plays your mother after she quits the show, all as a result of the actors’ disillusionment with the show’s minstrel-like portrayal of you as a lazy, larcenous, illiterate buffoon? And isn’t this all sort of like Art and Life waltzing around a ballroom of funhouse mirrors?
J.J. FROM GOOD TIMES: Boy, you talk too damn fancy for a kid! The only care I have in the world right now is finding out who stole mah gold paint! I need to make this black Jesus dyno-MITE!
(Cue laugh track.)
JASON HARRINGTON: Don’t look at me. I didn’t steal your gold paint.
J.J. FROM GOOD TIMES: Well I’ll know it was you if you come up wearing a new pair of psychedelic dungareeeees!
(Cue laugh track)
JASON HARRINGTON: This is hopeless.
(Jason, now age 30, is standing in front of a mirror, trying to tie a necktie in preparation for a looming funeral. It is a skill he never learned; a knowledge deficiency he would always blame vaguely on his father. He pulls at the tie with both hands, panting. Gives up, exhausted. Rests, tries again.)
JASON HARRINGTON (giving up): Nothing to be done.
(Enter CLIFF HUXTABLE and ARNOLD FROM “DIFFERENT STROKES.” Arnold drives Cliff by means of a rope passed around his neck, so that Cliff is the first to enter.)
CLIFF HUXTABLE: Neckties must be put on every day and I am tired of having to tell that to my black people! We need these fathers to take more responsibility! Abandoned unfinished the puddin’ the puddin’ the pop in Custard in spite of the fathers delicious the puddin’ alas the Jell-o (mêlée, final vociferations) the fathers the puddin’… the pop… so calm… the Custard… unfinished…
ARNOLD: And halt! What’chu talkin’ about, Jason and Bill Cosby? You don’t need a father to teach you to wear a tie. Haven’t you two ever heard of eHow? Or a clip-on? My writers killed off my single black mother before my show even started, and look at me: livin’ large with the Drummonds. Maybe what you two need is a clip-on brain.
(The canned laughter erupts, echoes, lingers, fades.)
The leaks in our ceiling intensified; the walls’ copper entrails croaked, retched, and roared with some bestial thermal struggle, keeping me up half the night. I had three 2.5 gallon buckets in my room, devoted to three different leaks. They began to overflow one night, and I feared my bed would be set afloat, sweeping me off to some far shore.
I began to attribute the happenings to conjuration, hoodoo and nasty mojos. I was sure the Haitian had actually come to Chicago from Down South, New Orleans, a descendant of Marie Laveau or Aunt Caroline Dye; that he had constructed a tiny doll in my likeness, stuffed with pins and pieces of my shredded short story, sewn back up and posed kneeling in a dark corner of his room. I feared a love hex.
The Haitian often smelled of creamy eau de toilette— scent of unseen women he was seeing away from our rundown bachelor pad. He sometimes had stray flecks of glittery cosmetics rubbed off on his face, so that I found myself receiving erudite lectures from a dark, intense, sparkly-faced man. I began to question my sexuality around the Haitian; began to wonder whether it was the rubbed-off traces of the women I found attractive, or the Haitian himself.
I tried to draw a confession of dark art dabbling by making passing references to Damballa and Legba, knocking on the Hatians’s bedroom door and asking if by chance he had any John the Conquerer root, goofer dust, black cat bones or even just sugar he could lend me. I tossed a box of toothpicks onto the stove and demanded he tell me my past and future; draw meaningful runes from the chaos.
The Haitian assured me that I was ignorant, racist, superstitious. That my Weltanschauung was chained to the cliché, like my story.
I bought a grimoire from a local bookstore—a book of 1,001 “authentic” root-and-conjure recipes, as compiled by a Louisiana folklorist and “Doctor of Phrenology” in 1935; I bought a whole catfish from the local deli, procured a stray pubic hair of the Haitian’s from our toilet bowl’s rim, placed it in the dead fish’s mouth and hid it within 6 feet of the Haitian’s door for a duration of time that was to last no less than 9 days, as prescribed by the book for general run-a-no-good-man-or-woman-off-from-the-house purposes. Finally, one day, the Haitian broke his silence. I entered the kitchen one morning to find the refrigerator door tagged with a magnet-pinned note.
Jason: If you will be so kind as to be quiet when I am sleeping tonight, I would appreciate it. I have a busy day ahead of me tomorrow. Also, it would be for your own good to do something with the problem that seems to exist concerning an intensifying reek of rotten fish. It could lead to health problems for you guys, soon.
Reading and re-reading the text into the night, I eventually pared it down to what I felt would be a better reading, when placed beneath the gaze of landlord and the authorities.
Ifyou will be so kind as to be quiet when I am sleeping tonight, I would appreciate it. I have a busy day ahead of me tomorrow. Also, it would be for your own good to do somethingwith the problem that seems to exist concerning an intensifying reek of rottenfish. It could lead to health problems for you guys,soon.
Now I had placed his text under erasure; made it betray him. With scissors, his own handwriting, and some glue, I began turning his text back upon itself; constructing a tiny ransomesque death threat that would surely be grounds for eviction.
But the Haitian’s note had been one of farewell.
Coming home from work the next day I found the Haitian’s door ajar, his bedroom empty. He’d slipped away while me and the other roommates were at work, leaving nothing behind, save for a shoebox diorama on his windowsill, and a strange book—authored by one Ts’ui Pên—in a language foreign to me.
Looking back at my short story now, I wonder why I had included in the text the details of what it was that the protagonist liked and did not like to eat (pizza, okra, respectively) without addressing what it was the young protagonist liked to drink. Admittedly, the Haitian’s method would have uncovered something significant for the author and reader when applied there. I had omitted from the story one crucial thing that began to happen the year my father left the house: our 13-year-old protagonist began sneaking into the kitchen late at night to steal cups of the cheap wine his mother had begun drinking to excess. Drink has historically been privileged within the protagonist’s family, and likewise will always be so in my texts.
Looking closer at the circus diorama the Haitian had left behind, at the scene depicted—flag-hatted black-and-yellow striped big top, assortment of reared-up beasts, mustachioed ringmaster in whip-frenzied freeze, and a half-moon proscenium beyond which you alone, the observer, exist in the audience—I noticed something strange.
At the center of the menagerie was a plastic man seated at a miniature desk, atop which rested a tiny block of finely-ruled paper, meant to represent, I was sure, me—endlessly writing and re-writing this story of mine, beginning with the end:
Continent, island, islet, speck—and then the little boy was gone.