MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“Eexcuse 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’ ’null, 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 ten-year 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,
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.
But e’en as I listened the mock-bird’s song,
A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, “I can cheer some other soul
By a carol’s simple art.”
For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
The mocking-bird sings at night.
So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear
In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
Though mine was a feeble art.
But at his smile I smiled in return,
And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to soothe another’s woes
Mine own had passed away.
“My God!” I cried. Dunbar’s words had brought healing to my young heart and convinced me that a black man could have feelings and express them without shame. I jumped up and ran all the way to Darrell’s house and declared, “Man, I got to tell you something! You ain’t never heard nothin’ like this!”
He cast me a suspicious eye. “T.L., what do you want?”
“I want to read you somethin’ incredible, man. It’s gon’ change your life forever!”
“Change my life forever? Is you crazy?”
“Naw, I ain’t crazy. Just listen for a minute.” My excited anxiety made it difficult to hold the book steady. I threw my head back, Martin Luther King, Jr. style, and recited the poem with all the drama I could muster. My eyes bulged and narrowed at the right points, and the inflection of my voice made Darrell laugh several times.
“‘But at his smile, I smiled in return,’” I read, and then grinned broad enough to show all my teeth at once. “‘And into my soul’”—I tapped my chest—“‘there came a ray.’” With eyes closed and face grimaced in preparation for the imminent theatrical moment, I clutched the book to my bosom and whispered the final couplet slowly and intensely: “‘In trying to soothe another’s woes, Mine own had passed away.’” A tear formed in my right eye but stood there stubbornly. I wanted it to fall to convince Darrell of the power of poetry, but it remained a watery glaze, too stubborn to obey.
“Is that it?” Darrell frowned.
“Man, you must be a fool,” I said, disappointed.
“The poem was OK, but it wasn’t great.”
I turned and walked back to the barn, depressed that my joy had not been contagious. “He just don’t get it,” I resolved. I had almost gotten over my frustration when the barn door opened and Daddy’s angry eyes pierced mine. My usual quick wits failed me, so I fidgeted and said, “I’m ’bout to feed the cows.”
“Give me dat book,” he demanded. I obeyed, fearful he was about to destroy it.
“Who de hell is Paul Dunbar?” he inquired with a tone of frustration.
“He’s a black man who lived a long time ago who wrote poems and stuff,” I answered, hoping my response would encourage interest.
“Well, de next time you run off and leave dese cows unfed you gon’ need Dunbar to come rub yo’ sore ass.” Daddy tossed the book onto a nearby bale of hay and went out.
Relieved, I fed the cows quickly and returned to the barn, reading half the book before I went to bed that night. Most of the poems moved me to tears. I didn’t understand how Dunbar did it, yet I knew then I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. The power of his words captured and healed my heart, and that’s what I wanted to do for others. To know that I could construct a poem in Arkansas and it soothe the soul of someone in California or Budapest was absolutely intriguing. I knew I’d have to leave Swamp Creek to do it, though, because my hometown offered very little room for a man whose occupation was the cleansing and nurturing of human souls.
However, my escape plan must have backfired, for there I was again, sitting under the Meetin’ Tree sweating, unable to explain to myself exactly why I was there at all. I had risen to start walking home when I heard an engine coming down the road and glanced to see who it was. I didn’t know what to say to anyone, but not to say anything was completely unacceptable. Whoever it was would definitely speak. Swamp Creek folks have always had that principle.
The little pickup truck pulled off the highway onto the bare dirt spot in front of the tree, and out stepped Old Man Blue. “Hey dere, young fella!” he said, obviously not recognizing me, beneath the brim of my hat. “You from round dese hyeah parts?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Blue,” I said, smiling. He was shocked I knew his name, and the frown in his eighty-year-old wrinkled forehead exposed his desire to know who I was.
“Seem lak to me,” he said, shifting from one bad knee to the other, “you looks rat familiar.” He took a handkerchief out of his overalls to wipe the sweat from his shiny jet-black face. “I jes’ can’t place you.” He hobbled a little closer to where I was standing and looked down from his six-five frame directly into my eyes. His hair, which used to include a few black strands here and there, now stood short, stubby, and completely gray. Even the hair in his eyebrows was gray, as was the hair on his right knuckles that held the homemade walking cane.
Suddenly Old Man Blue’s eyes bulged and he gaped at me. “Lawd have murcy,” he murmured. “T.L., is dat you?” His voice trembled.
“Yes, sir. It’s me, in the flesh. It’s been a while, huh?” I reached to shake his hand, but Old Man Blue grabbed me and hugged me violently.
“Lawd have murcy Jesus!” he kept repeating. He had caught me off guard, really, because menfolk in Swamp Creek didn’t hug each other, at least not while I lived there.
“Boy, folks thought you might be dead somewhere. Ain’t nobody hea’d from you since befo’ Momma died. You jes’ disappeared, seemed lak to me, and all we knowed to do was pray.”
He slapped my shoulder and grinned, apparently unashamed of the two lonely teeth in his mouth.
“Where you been all dis time, boy?” Old Man Blue asked, both for information and to reprimand.
“I went away to college and then decided to get my doctoral degree. I’ve been doing a lot of studying and writing, so I haven’t had much time to …” I knew this excuse was lame even before I offered it.
“Folk where you went to school ain’t got no telephone or post office?” He hesitated and wiped his brow again, frowning from the glare of the sun. He had trapped me and he knew it.
“It’s a long story, Mr. Blue. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to come by and sit and talk before I go back. I ain’t been home yet, so I guess I’d better be gettin’ on that way. I just stepped off the Greyhound bus a few minutes ago.”
“Lawd, boy, yo’ momma gon’ have a tizzy when she sees you! I ‘speck yo’ daddy might shout, too, don’t chu thank?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, wondering why both of us were lying.
“Well, hop on in and I’ll take you home.” Old Man Blue began to drag his bad leg back to the driver’s side of his truck.
“Oh, no sir. Thank you, though. I’m just sitting here enjoying the breeze and catching my breath. I’ma walk so I can take my time and look around.”
Old Man Blue chuckled, a sign that he knew something was wrong, especially since there was absolutely no breeze to be found anywhere in Swamp Creek that day. “Well, help yo’self,” he said as he struggled to climb back into the little beat-up Toyota. “I’ma git on down de road heayh. I’ll see you in de moanin’ at church, won’t I?”
“Oh, yes sir,” I said emphatically. And he would see me. You don’t sleep in my momma’s house and not go to Sunday school on Sunday morning.
He began to drive away slowly. “If you run into my folks, before I do,” I yelled from the shade, “don’t say anything about seeing me, OK? I want to surprise them.”
“Oh, I ain’t gon’ say a wurd! But I’m sho’ is gon’ thank de Lawd that you’s in the land of the livin’!” He raised his extra-long arthritic left arm and waved. “I’ll see ya.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Blue,” I said too softly for him to have heard. He was always such a nice man, he and his wife, Ms. Polly. Willie James and I used to go to their house and eat fried pies every chance we got. We almost got a whoopin’ one Saturday morning because Ms. Polly begged us to “come on in hyeah and git you some o’ dese old pies, boys. Yo’ daddy ain’t gon’ mind,” she said convincingly. Still, we knew better, but we went in and ate the pies anyway. After a moment, we heard Daddy calling us.
“We gon’ get it now,” I told Willie James.
“No you ain’t,” Ms. Polly intervened. “Cleatis better not touch you. I gave y’all dem pies ’cause I wanted to, and he better not say nothin’ ’bout it. Shit, he used to eat ’em all de time hisself!” I don’t think Ms. Polly realized she had said a bad word. Willie James and I laughed, hopeful that Ms. Polly’s clout as an elder would cover us.
“Ain’t I told y’all ’bout eatin’ at other folks’ houses?” Daddy said when we exited Ms. Polly’s front porch.
“Ah, you hush, Cleatis Tyson!” Ms. Polly scolded. “You can’t say nothin’. You done ate enough of dem ole pies to fill a barn! Now let dem boys alone!” She winked at us as she turned to reenter her house. We chuckled from the joy of watching Daddy get put in his place for once. I had never seen him submissive. Even the hardest men bow down when an elder speaks. The smart thing, I realized, was to be on the side of the elders—always. So I started speaking to all the old men and women at church, and they began to adore me. “That T.L. is somethin’ else!” Mother Berthine used to tell Momma proudly. “He gon’ be great one day. You mark my word!” I loved hearing Mother Berthine prophesy about me.
Momma didn’t. She would give a patronizingly fake smile and say, “Yes, ma’am,” but her tone did not confirm the sentiment. I don’t know why. As I got older, I began to think she didn’t like me, but I could never think of a reason why. I had decided, in fact, to ask Momma one day why she hated me, and, from the looks of things, that day had finally arrived.
It was ninety-five degrees in the shade with no relief in sight; therefore I saw no reason to prolong the imminent confrontation. I took a deep breath, grabbed my bags, and began the long, slow walk home.
Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Omotosho Black