at funerals, dad counts cars. this, for him, is the supreme unit for measuring someone’s legacy: how many people drank so much of your spirit that they’d follow a train through homewood calling your name? he cannot remember how many cars followed his mother’s hearse. he says the hearse smelled like leather & the dead&thedying & sharp cologne applied too heavily to disguise the scent of tears&hardliquor.
dad says when the cops came knocking he had sought refuge at his gram’s house on inglenook. he is nineteen and it takes two motherfuckers for him to lose his mind in the heat. he is no stranger to death; three days in waiting rooms & antiseptic has made him invincible. say it again. say it again. /motherfucker. the first two syllables lodge in temple like blunt trauma to the head. that woman who nursed the sun for fire and warmth and sliced the world in eighths with quick tongue. the second two syllables send him reeling. right arm raised like angel’s wing. a crack and a burst of blood. it takes two motherfuckers for this boy to lose his mind or gain it. he leaves the wounded to tend to their own wounded just as quickly as he arrived, sun dancing on oakland asphalt as if to say you are already forgiven.
in 87’ lex waved my dad into her room and told him she needed a pepsi from the drugstore down the block. there were seventeen empty bottles of brandy on the carpet. broken glass everywhere. 10 pm and she’d been dying for years, but something had ticked or flipped and suddenly there were red lights down frankstown. body to hospital. three days of sterilized waiting rooms. at work my dad is late & he almost kills a boss who questions him. day 4. three two one. whatsthecall? something in him cracks or gives in fluorescent flashes of lex, his mother:
at five he catches a glimpse of her in the shadows. following him to school. ma. you ain’t think i saw you peeking around that tree halfway down oakwood, barely caught your afro spilling out around the trunk but ma—i saw you and every tree from inglenook to bennet was you…and the branches was your arms, and nothing could hurt me. no one.
seven and he finds a pile of white powder on a record beneath her bed. case of wine. empty bottles turned over.
six and she is swinging up, punching a woman three times her size.
eight. she is birthing a baby. ten. she is birthing a baby.
11. california sun on her face. honey brown heat and afros in watts. eleven. the earthshaking. her voice singing off tune, hints of trouble lodged in her throat like lozenges.
fifteen. blocking his face from her fists.
seventeen. his high school graduation. she is shorter than him, reaching up to wipe smudges from his cheeks with her spit.
there is a sound like a choke and then a whisper.
a-l-e-x-i-s? 36-year old black women w split livers don’t die with wills. so their bodies are given to circumstance and casket colors are picked by wide eyed sons.
what do poor people mark graves with?
dad has never lost a game of chess, not even in prison.
dad is always ten moves ahead.
at restaurants, dad loosens the caps on saltshakers and always sits facing the door.
dad goes nowhere without his hammer but will never own a gun. says his hands can do all the damage. says he’s been squeezing pliers for thirty years. says he’ll use his brain to knock a man out. says: see that dude right there. twenty years ago i hit him in the head with a pair of vice grips. says…nothing. just loosens the saltshakers and watches the door. swears to god that if anyone ever hurts me he’ll bust his kneecaps in.
just before midnight on tate is quiet and crickets and humming of ghosts. phantoms of those old, dead mills throw shadows of smoke and bodies, steel-encrusted and swallowed by heat. that burgundy behemoth of a truck, illegal and uninspected, haunts the backyard under my bathroom window. yellow siding draws and repels in a dusty misunderstanding: reminds of lemonade and summer, while the spirits in the kitchen assure that this house has stomached blue, brutal winters. dad’s unfinished work lays claim to the corners: bales of pink installation, floor gutted of carpet, half peeled wallpaper, next time you come: we work. dad manages a whole meal without a stove or an oven: potatoes roast in gram’s old crockpot. this summer, i only eat fish, so the hot plate scalds salmon he swiped at the dollar store. pictures on walls remind me of gram’s sitting room: no coincidence. dad is obsessed with legacy and rebirth; in the wake of death he constructs babel-like fortresses that pay homage to the dead, try to talk to god. this broken house for four thousand dollars, no mortgage, paid flat from savings bonds and secret stashes stored in socks. dad is obsessed with ownership. this is my inheritance. this and all his tools.
the crests of our neighborhood boast of a stillness that cannot be enjoyed in its vales. somewhere down the hill, someone allows bullets to careen out of a barrel, just close enough for us to hear. dad stumbles outside in the wake of gunshots to feed the birds and in the crux between dark and light we coat tate with kernels in a half-sleep, free-limb dance. we do not sleep this night, perhaps caught up in images of death brewing just below us. in the living room, we play a blend of old school rap about which he is certain, i know nothing. public enemy and grandmaster flash. i introduce him to kendrick chance and noname and he bobs his head to new school beats. there is no need to speak, in this house, but when dad and i get together there is no shortage of words. we bounce poetry back and forth, swap stories we’ve both already heard. did I tell you?/ yupp, but tell me again. i ask questions to which i already know the answers. about lex. about shadows and reflections of self. midway through j.cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” he’s crying and saying how much i look like her. i try to steal his can of chewing tobacco; his puffed-out lip reminds me of mouth cancer and early death. most times, i fail, and we laugh a laugh that holds fear in her right jaw. we set up the chess board; i win or he lets me win. the one finished room of this house is mine, painted my favorite color and bathed in light. a rent-a-center bedroom set he’s almost paid off. we sit in this cove till the sun spills through wooden blinds; the street is bare and dripping with dew or the hungry saliva of birds.