I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
I sit here. I sit here thinking hard about the smell of menstrual blood. It’s been so long since that first time; I can barely remember its true color, its smell—like iron, perhaps? slightly funky with the aroma of vagina?—its taste, thick, salty, again iron and iron. I sit here sniffing my fingers like some nasty boy, which I am, and all I can smell is the faint residue of soy sauce and MSG; not blood; not iron. What I would give to smell it again. To taste it. Hers. Her blood.
I’ve started smoking again. I did it at first because she did it; I didn’t much like it then. But she looked so sexy when she did it, leaning up against the headboard, her hair in her eyes, her legs gapped open, a pillow between them. She could French enhale. I can do it now. I couldn’t then. Back then I would damn near choke. Now I smoke two packs a day.
So much is said of that one good cigarette after a heavy, good meal. For me it’s that one good cigarette after orgasm. They aren’t the same now, the orgasms. I need the blood, the slickery sensation, the mess, the horror, the grossness, the danger. These days blood is a dangerous thing, even more so than in those days. It makes cigarettes seem harmless.
I smoke too much.
She lifts her breast up for me to suck. She likes that. The nipple, darkly brown, its areola too broad for a 24-year-old woman; the small bumps around it pebble-hard, prickly. I bite it: she sucks in air through her nose. I suck my titty, my sugar-tit, my teat, my pacifier, my glory hole. In my mouth it hardens, opens, a cactus blossom in my mouth. I want it to ooze bitter milk. Her breath comes short, as if she were sprinting, her legs begin to tread water on either side of me, she calls my name urgently, Aaron, Aaron, as if I am to save her, as if she’s about to expire. Her legs spread further. I smell her. I feel her. Wet, hot, her pelvis speaks to me in Babylonian tongues, wild and insane, singing an ancient tune, dulcimer and zither and cymbal, vibrating, humming; I am flute, cornet, bow: we sing. We make a joyful noise unto the Lord, a raucous noise, an unholy song of heat and lust to an unholy Lord.
Lord, Lord, Lord.
Days of dust and debris and isolation. Dry days. Deathly dull days. Days of dim doom, dawn to dusk. My days. But that’s what I wanted, isn’t it? Security. Safety. That’s why I got my English degree at Duke; my MBA at Georgetown and my JD at Vanderbilt. Right? Why I chose tax law, for Christsakes. Blessed be the name of bankruptcy, depreciation, amorization.
A glorified accountant. That’s what I am, regardless the prestige of the firm, or how brightly the receptionist grins in the morning when I step off the elevator; or how the paralegals and the very junior associates seem to tremble in my presence. Who cares? Who will remember me, 50 years after my death, even if I become the first black partner at Zuckerman, Spitzer, Klein, et al? A rich old nigger who climbed up the money heap on the back of golden parachutes and junk bonds and mergers and estate management. Big deal. Washington is full of bright, rich, bland, myopic black people. I’m just another one.
But how many change at night? I wonder. I can’t be the only one. Out of my suit, into my jeans or naked on the floor. Jekyll to Hyde (or is it Hyde to Jekyll?). My mind a blight of wrongdoing and wickedness. Is she corrupted by so much iniquity? Does she, in her husband’s arms, dream of me? Does she faint in trying to remember the taste of sweat on my neck? I very seriously doubt it. So I’m alone.
Some days I can’t wait to get home, can’t wait for the sun to go down, to fling off my clothes, get in bed, pick up the phone and dial 1-900-555-TWAT or 1-900-555-PSSY or l-900-555-FUCK. It doesn’t matter, now, does it? Sometimes I try the party lines. Regardless, I am unsatisfied. So little poetry to their descriptions, their talk pedestrian, crude, nigh-illiterate, sad, depressing. Sometimes I begin to cry. Sometimes I just ask: Tell me about your nipples. While hammering myself violently. I come too quickly. In my sleep—I know it’s a bad cliche—I dream of her.
You see, I’ve tried videos; I own over a hundred now. I look for likenesses, resemblances, but few have my sister’s mulatto hue, or her particular features, like my father’s nose or my father’s lips. Which my sister does.
So I don’t watch the videos any more, they only serve to frustrate me. But in the wrong way.
An old man once told me that to plant corn properly, you must put at least three seeds in a hole at a time. This way when the plants grow tall and begin to ovulate, there will be another plant close enough to impregnate the next. Their pollen is heavy. Not like azaleas or apple blossoms or peach blooms. They need to be close to insure the infection which leads to fat ears of corn. Isn’t that something else? Asexuality. Must be nice.
I don’t hate my father, though I suspect you suspect I do. No, he engenders a fear in me perhaps the way Yaweh inspired fear in Abraham’s bosom.
He’s a big man, both literally and figuratively. He’s a doctor, the only doctor in a small town in North Carolina called Tims Creek. Where my father is from. He’s six-one, darkly handsome and sports a full white beard at 55. A striking figure. He grew up in New York, went to Morehouse and Howard Medical School. He was the sort of man who studied Arabic while interning at Columbia-Presbyterian. Very radical in the ’60s. He met Mom in Atlanta. In the ’70s, by the time I was about ready for high school, he decided, disillusioned with “the movement,” he decided the most effective use of his skills would not be to practice in Harlem, but in the rural South where good medical care was hard to come by. Fateful decision.
But not as fateful as his decision—characteristic of Dad, morally upright, constantly challenging himself—to take in the one Big Mistake he had made in his life, at 16: his 19-year-old daughter whom he conceived while in high school. His father, a doctor in Harlem too, had done right by the girl, but Pop felt the need—why I still can’t quite understand—to re-adopt her. You see, he didn’t approve of the life her mother, poor, living in Spanish Harlem, was providing for his first born. He had plans for his progeny. Great Yaweh, Malcolm Aaron Streeter, and his covenant would go unbroken throughout the ages, for time immemorial, for your children and your children’s children’s children. Amen.
What would the old grey-beard say if he knew what he had set in motion? He’d probably quote the Bhagavad-Gita or the Koran or some obscure Aztec text.
I really don’t hate my father. I’m just scared to death of him. This is the honest truth.
Trust me. (Though you should never trust a lawyer who actually says, Trust me.) I know it sounds Freudian; but it is not Freudian, not Freudian in its intent, perhaps in its execution; Freudian in its caresses, Freudian in its French kisses and sucking, its licking and gasps and butt-funk. Not Freudian in its unconscious meaning. No. I beseech you, as Cromwell said, “in the bowels of Christ, to think it that you might be wrong.” Not Freud, okay? Not in its symbolism or its interpretation. Jungian perhaps. An archetypal fuck-up, a consciousness of sin. But Freud, as much as I respect him, has nothing to do with it. So please put away your Totem and Taboo and your Interpretation of Dreams and your Psychopathology of Everyday Life and your copy of Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex away. Okay? I’ve read them, you see. I’ve read them all. And trust me. Freud and his ideas don’t figure into this little drama. Have nothing to do with it.
I hated Tims Creek at first, but not as much as she did, and not as long. She still hates it, she tells me. Even though she’s never truly left the state since she came to live there, keeps going back to see her father and stepmother in Tims Creek, and lives in a town very like Tims Creek. But she insists she hates it.
I can’t hate it now. It’s become a part of me. A part of my internal landscape. The forests, the pastures, the hog pens, the barns and chicken coops, the tobacco fields, soybean fields, and of course, the cornfields. Not to make too much of them. They’re there certainly, and I can’t avoid them.
I remember my first look into them, at the edge as if I were staring into a Conradian jungle, a North American Congo. I expected Indians to come dashing out, not real Indians but the Indians of a 12-year-old’s imagination: tomahawk-toting, be-feathered, howling. A racist notion, yes, but innocent in its intent. Sometimes I imagined drums, like the beat of copulation, though I had no idea at the time that that was the rhythm of fucking, the rhythm I imagined, felt in my soul. Though in truth it’s the thud of the heart, the motion of the lungs, the same harmless rhythm which takes on sinister connotations when genitalia is added.
But there was nothing sinister about those first years before she came, before I lost interest in imaginary games with imaginary playmates, spaceships, superheros, sorcerers. The fields, the woods gave me such freedom, more than a kid growing up on West 135th Street could have dreamed of.
At first we lived with my grandmother, Miss Jesse. Thin, deceptively delicate, Victorian, Wilmington-bred, daughter of a realtor, widow of an insurance man with land. Then hers. Magisterial, hard-as-brass knuckles, Miss Jesse, cloaked in cigarette smoke and hoarse commands obeyed without question, her eyes saw more than people: they saw levers and switches. She could fell a man with one well-placed word; disintegrate a woman with an accurately calibrated glance.
Her relationship with Jamonica was contentious at best. This urban girl of 166th Street and Third Avenue, now ordered to mop floors, cut grass, wash windows and porches. Jamonica fussed. Miss Jesse glared back regally, conceding nothing. My mother sat on the sidelines, embroidering, knitting, reading, choosing not to get involved. Ole Malcom was much too busy working out the salvation of his Chosen People to be bothered, or to care. So Miss Jesse and Jamonica finally worked out a truce of sorts. Though I believe, secretly, Miss Jesse enjoyed the spirited young girl’s protests and the domestic warfare.
How would she, now from her grave, comment upon those wicked goings on? Forbidden coupling? Very Victorian if not Freudian, you must admit.
I’ve tried the escort services. Pathetic. These women, I mean. Sad. I like to think of myself as a feminist and more than a person who pays lip service to notions of equality and who is aware of exploitation in all its forms. But don’t all men harbor secret romantic visions about prostitutes, about carefree, totally free, uninhibited human-toys? I must be honest here. If I’m not honest, why bother.
But these poor women. Some are okay, bitten by the Horatio Alger bug of saving and working to get through college, to become bank tellers and flight attendants and pizza joint managers. Even they seem sad, in the end, lost to their hard-to-realize dreams. But I rarely talk to them about their lives any more. Not that I do it that often. The services don’t take American Express.
I describe what I want to be sent over and they’re generally all wrong. Nothing like Jamonica. Some come as stereotypical harlots, gum-chewing, vivid red-lipsticked, fluffy-haired, crudely spoken—the ready-made version, to be sure, of some fat, impotent beer distributor. Or they come young, bewildered, innocent still, though in the very maw of the monster’s mouth; defiled yet pure. Or they’ll send me hardened, practical women, good at their trade, for it is a trade to them, serving up fantasy. I never tell them they are to be my sister. Though they’re probably used to much kinkier.
One girl—sorry—woman—called herself Rose. She came the closest of any I’ve seen so far. But I heard no Assyrian music, felt no ancient demons howl; I ended up holding her, my eyes closed, limp as yarn, calling, calling, softly.
“Who’s Jamonica?” Rose asked me.
“An old lover.”
She kissed me coyly, a kiss reeking of sentimentality and audacious pity, as if to say, Poor little boy, wost him wuttle wuppy. Aaawwwwhatashame. I told her to leave.
Perhaps it’s true then, what I’ve thought all along. What’s that old reposte—I know it’s as tacky as hell to mention, but why not? you’ll think of it anyway—how is it?: The closer the kin, the deeper in? Exactly.
I sit here and I wonder if I’m truly crazy. Am I? Crazy?
I’ve tried shrinks. They insult my intelligence. They think the problem is with my family. No shit. My father. Bullshit. My sister. Bingo. But then what?
My patience is shorter than an angstrom unit; my confidence in my own mind as strong as bonds in the nucleus of an atom; my pain as hurtful as the mothers’ of Nagasaki. Or is it the sons’? Has attempting to obliterate my sense of loss on my own caused me to lose my mind? Am I sitting her amid boxes of chicken and snow peas, beef and broccoli, gooey rice and the remnants of egg roll dabbled in mustard and duck sauce, scribbling the thoughts of a madman? Or am I merely sick? Depraved? Are these the thoughts of neurotic? A psychopath? Or am I just more honest than most? Smarter? Am I daring greatly? Or have I been cursed for violating a sacred trust older than Yoroba legend and Nippon lore? Am I the victim of the gods’ own jealous wrath? Eat of any tree in the garden, but you are damned you eat the fruit of the One Tree. Double damned if you enjoy it. Triple damned if you can’t get enough.
Let me tell you about my sister. I already have, you’ll say. But no. I’ve told you of my infatuation and my consumnation. Of love making. But Jamonica herself is something else again.
She came to visit two summers in a row before she came to live with us. I hated her at first, resenting the intrusion in our lives, this illegitimate half-breed, distracting my father who already had problems focusing on me. Selfish little bastard, wasn’t I?
Jamonica despised the country, she said. Claiming allergies to everything—grass, dogs, air—she carried the city around with her in her make-up, clothing, her perfume, her sneering at the dull country folks, saying: “Oh, you’re so country!,” finding herself so impatient in the middle of conversations. Everything, everything moved too slow for her. She was surrounded by bumpkins as far as she was concerned, and kept dreaming aloud of Manhattan and subways and sidewalks. I thought she was crazy.
She wanted to smoke. She did smoke. Miss Jesse and Dad said, No. She persisted, sneaking a smoke in her room, in the backyard. My mom said, Hell no, and Jamonica went even further out of her way in defiance. I would tattle on her whenever I had hard evidence, hoping maybe they’d get rid of her.
But all this changed that second summer, perhaps the harbinger of my ordeal, my fixation, the bad habit to come. Let’s be portentious.
At first the boys would hang around the barn, loudly laughing at us laboring country folks. The boys? Phil, Terry, and Vaughn. Three nephews of the man who leased Miss Jesse’s land. Bad boys from the Bronx. Visiting for the summer. Nineteen, seventeen, sixteen. Walking bombs of testosterone, adrenaline, semen, hot blood, and bad attitude. The barn? The tobacco barn, where my little sister, Miss Jesse, I, and groaning, moaning, protesting, fussing Jamonica, handed the bright green leaves backhanded to be tied and sent into the barn for firing. Miss Jesse insisted we work in tobacco. It built character. Tobacco. Nicotina tabacum. It’s a member of the nightshade family, you know? Belladona and all that. Now there’s a symbol for you.
I loved the work; it was more like play to me. Playing with doodle-bugs in the sand around the barn, listening to the women gossip. Sweat and toil were new and thrilling to me. Jamonica never stopped bitching. Hated the black tar the leaves left caked on the hand. Hated the talk of soap operas and boyfriends and unfaithful boyfriends. I think at one point she even threatened to kill Miss Jesse.
Like wolves the boys came. Perhaps they heard Jamonica was from Harlem. Perhaps they were bored. Perhaps they smelled her, her especially, caught her scent in the wind, and came panting in heat to sniff deeply and sate their canine urge.
“Hey, you. Yeah, you. Where you from?”
“Why? Where you from?”
“A hundred and seventy-first and Grand Concourse. Okay? Where’re you from?”
“Around a hundred and sixteenth?”
“Got a boyfriend?”
“And he let you come down here in these woods all by yourself?”
They would all chortle and snort and hi-hi-hi. I wanted to stuff tobacco leaves down their throats.
“Why don’t you boys start working?” Miss Jesse gave the oldest a stare that I’m sure would have turned me into lead. “If you plan to hang around bothering us.”
“Aaaah. No thank you. We on vacation.”
“Well, then. In that case I suggest you vacate these premises.”
“But we like it here.”
I had never seen boys look at other people like that. Or perhaps I had just not noticed it. Like hunger but where hunger involves the head and belly, this involved the entire body, the legs, the arms, the hips, the backbone. They leered. But the most disturbing thing, to the GI-toting, Batman-reading, electric train set-operating me, was the way Jamonica, flirtatiously, coquettishly, seemed to be egging them on, with her eyes, with her lips. Could she be enjoying this? Of course not. These boys were dogs.
“I said,” Miss Jesse stepped back from work and began walking toward the boys. “You boys had better find another place to amuse yourselves. We are working here!” She stood before the oldest boy, Phil.
Obviously he intended to hang tough at first, but apparently the Miss Jesse voodoo jumped on his loa and did a mean watushi. He stumbled backward and swallowed. “Okay, Miss. We hear you, all right? All right.”
They left, looking back purposefully, their rowdy talk trailing off behind them, jackals into the distance.
“Those boys are no good”; Miss Jesse shook her head going back to work. No good.
No good, but not gone. They made their presence known to Jamonica, and I picked up on it as though I had a shortwave attached to her, eavesdropping. Here, there, around Tims Creek, they lurked. Demons on a bough. Coyotes in the night. I kept my water gun full.
One day—perhaps, being portentious, I should say, One Fateful Day—Jamonica and I were walking back home from working at the barn. The boys approached us from the other direction. I remember the feeling I fought against. The fear of being bested in a fight, the anger of intrusion, the foreign desire to protect my sister. Maybe even jealousy, inchoate, innocent, impossible.
“Where you heading, little lady?”
“Nowhere you going or been.”
They guffawed too loudly, stroking their chins, eyeing her as if a new car.
“You sure about that?”
My cue on stage. I lept forward. “Leave her along, you—”
“What the fuck is this?” Phil barely gave me a full look. “Tell it to go away ’fore I squash it.”
“He’s my brother. And I suggest you keep your hands to yourself.” She grabbed from behind and my diastolic blood pressure surely jumped ten points from humiliation, frustration and just plain ignorance.
“With my feet, babe, not my hands. The hands is for you.”
They had us encircled, or more accurately, en-triangled.
“You full of talk, Phil.”
“Talk? Course I got a rap. But sweet thang, I got something else.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
He stood in front of me, facing her, me squished between the two of them like so much baloney. I punched him between the legs.
What happened next I remember only impressionistically, mostly due to the whir of activity and not wanting to remember. Phil furiously pushed me to his brothers: they jostle me about, making rude comments about my size, manhood, and intelligence: I try to watch what peculiar negotiations Phil is making with my sister: she apparently negotiates back: I see him nod toward the cornfield off the road: I’m on the ground crying: the three boys and Jamonica go into the field.
Sobbing, I stood at the edge of the cornfield, part of me scared to death, part of me confused, part of me, the part familiar with comic book heros, feeling the need to strip into my costume and fly into the field and lift my sister from harm. I had no cape, no ray gun, no smoke bombs. Batman never cried. I ran in. The tall corn swatting me in the face, the uneven earth making it hard to keep my footing, I knocked over stalks to find them. After a time, I did, peering through the stalks as though leavy prison bars.
He seemed to be hurting her. Her pants were open at the top, revealing panties, pubic hair; his hand between her legs; held her closely, violently, his mouth all over hers; his pants were down about his knees; his penis a small, black, dragon. The other two boys looked on lewdly, rubbing their pants. I heard Jamonica giggle. I lunged toward them, but something stopped me.
Even now my eyes tear a bit. Not for what they did to my sister, but because that slap hurt. No one has ever hit me quite so hard. I sat between two cornrows rocking like a top about to fall, the breath knocked out of me. I looked on. Saw the dragon disappear. Saw that she enjoyed it, and clutched him hard, as if he were saving her.
I did not stop running until I got to the house, looking over my shoulder each time, thinking the boys would catch me and perhaps do the same wicked thing to me. I suspected I would now enjoy it.
Miss Jesse sat on the porch with Mrs. Pearsall. Out of breath, face covered with dirt and sweat, weeds and corn tassles about my hair, tears in my eyes, I yelled at the top of my voice: “Grandma, Phil is doing it to Jamonica in the cornfield!”
She did not blink. She reached for a cigarette smouldering there in a nearby ashtray. I can still hear her, how she formed her words, the sound of the words as they whipped through me: clear, measured, firm, piercing:
“Young man, you will learn there are things you do not tell your elders. A tattle-tale is not an admirable thing to aspire towards. Now go wash your face and hands—you look a sight.”
In a rare instance I did not obey her. I sat on the stoop and stared at the cornfield, unbraided, picking at my confusion like a new sore, the pain smarting much more deeply.
Finally she hollered for me to do as she said, and I did. At length Jamonica returned, calm, a look I now know is called after-glow on her face, a few strands of hair askew, a piece of tallow here and there.
“Sister,” Miss Jesse always called younger women sister, even my mother–”Sister, supper’s about done. Go wash up.”
No one said a word. Not even I. Nor has she said a word to me, to this day. I often replay the scene in my mind. Tell you a deep secret: in my replay I am Phil. Jamonica is Jamonica is Jamonica. Wicked, no?
Corn. Zorn maze or Zea Mays. A very peculiar plant, if you ask me. As peculiargoes in the plant kingdom. As much vegetable as grain. An ingenous invention of nature. Its seeds can be eaten either young or aged, or ground into a powder, turned into a paste and cooked. The Native Americans, as we all know from TV commercials, called it maize. But it’s indigenous, in various varieties, to Australia and Africa as well. The Egyptians grew it. The word we use comes from the Anglo-Saxon coren or corne or coorn borrowing from the Middle Teutonic korno, meaning grain, ending up to mean a “worn-down particle.” In that way it was applied to any grain at first, wheat, rye, barley, etc.; or small seeds such as apple or grape seeds; or to mean a bit of gunpowder or salt. The first known use as applied to maize was in 1679 and it’s stuck.
You’ve seen cornfields. You’ve seen how they move in the breeze. You’ve known the feeling I’ve spoken of, the dread excitement. Expectation. Fear. As if something were lurking there. Imagine that feeling applied to a woman.
I wanted to become a doctor, but that would have made him too happy. Couldn’t do that. (You think it’s because I hate him; but I don’t, as I’ve told you; but I don’t. If I had become a doctor, I’d have failed him in the end. So his happiness would have been short-lived. And I’d be humiliated. See?) So I chose botany first. He was lukewarm. He finally came around by the time I said ethnobotany in my freshman year. This made him a wee bit happier. Christmas of my junior year I changed my mind. I told him before I went back to school that January that I had chosen to declare pre-law. You should have seen the look on his face. Later he changed his tune; I suspect he could envision a judge. When I got to law school he fully expected me to go with civil rights. (At Vanderbilt? He just wasn’t thinking.) When I broke the news over dinner it would be tax law, I could see that he had pretty much given up on me. Though I know he had done that earlier. Not that I’d do well; well was a given. But exceptional. Glorious. There is no Glory in tax law.
But who shall save God?
She started it. I know how petulant and boy-like such a statement sounds. She started it. But it’s true. She did. Does the math confuse you? It’s confusing. Dr. Streeter reached down into the miry clay when he was 19 just before he went off to Morehouse and made Jamonica of a comely Puerto Rican woman. He begat me from my mother while in residency, in holy matrimony, when he was 27. Actually, chronologically speaking, seven years, not six, separate us. My younger sister came along three years later. Okay? I was 19—we Streeter men have a thing for the number 19 and carnality—when it started. She was 25. Not so daunting an idea. Well, the math at least.
Before that moment, before we crossed the threshold over which I guess you could say there was no exit, where you couldn’t get a refund on your ticket, before I truly knew her like David knew Bathsheba, we were just big sis and little bro. She was someone to annoy me, reprove me, get in the bathroom before me, to drive me about before I got my license, to tattle on, to play practical jokes on and make fun of. There were other girls and nasty sex before her—I never claimed to be an angel. Lots. But she was the milestone, the dividing line between BC and AD.
How? Don’t be silly. Why? Don’t be naive. What? Now there’s an intelligent question. I don’t know, what? What made us do it. Alone in the house. She had just graduated from NC Central. Papa proud. Mama relieved. Other mother happy. Grandma dead. I was about to go off to Duke. Summer. Summer of possibilities. Did we both sense it? All the possibilities? There on the couch, everybody gone? Did we both think, he/she’s only my half-sister/brother? I think not. I don’t think we thought.
You must understand there was a general excitement in the atmosphere. You know, the flipside of teenaged angst for me—the freedom to come; for her the horizon of life, career, possibilities …
Oh, but this is too abstract. I can’t get you to understand, if not to empathize, then to sympathize with me through cold and vague terminology. Let me be romantic, people respond to that. Let me be dramatic. Let me conjure.
Okay. It’s June. Early June. Dr. and Mrs. Streeter and little sister Streeter are away, not for a day or a weekend, but for two whole weeks. Jamonica and Aaron are home with nothing to occupy them for the duration. They talk, now both young adults, about this and that. They become close. It’s as if they are new people to one another. Aaron has had those pernicious growth spurts since Jamonica has been away; he is handsome, strapping; his voice has deepened; he has a hard chest and arms and legs from tennis and track and basketball. At 25 Jamonica is—well, I’m being romantic, right?—a flower, a Tahitian nymph out of Gaughain, her lips plump and rich, her eyes, blackly, oilily, sinisterly, smokely, with magic in them, remind him of reptiles, not in repulsion, but in cold heat—this isn’t doing it, is it? I could make allusions all night, but they would only start to hit at how the sight of her on a stool, sitting carelessly, or lounging on the sofa smoking, made my pulse flitter, my penis roll over and sigh … give up …
They would sit before the television, watching Sanford and Son, (I even remember the episode, but I won’t bore you). They have become more and more lewd in their innuendo and joking. Aaron would grab her now and then, at first brotherly, jocularly, but the grasp would linger a bit long and Aaron would sense that she did not mind, that she was even solicitous. That day while watching TV, Aaron, erect as a stalk of corn, notices her skirt hiked up to her thigh. That moment changes things. Irrevocably. A circuit fuses in his mind. Psssst.
He gets on his knees as if to pray. He spreads her legs, his hands trembling on her knees. He begins to kiss the tender insides of her thighs. She coos and grabs his head, urging him on. He inches up to her panties. She gives a giggle. He sees it there. Humble little thing. He pauses only for a moment: already defying propriety, holy law, why stop? Against her half-uttered protests, he pulls it out, smelly, clotted, horrid. Her skirt is ruined, a spot will be left on the couch, a deep maroon Rorschach, which his mother will never mention. The cushion will remain forever turned over.
Okay. So I lied. I started it then. But that’s not how it is in my mind.
We practically lived in bed after that. I expect to hear dad’s car drive up at the most inopportune moments. But miraculously we were left to our iniquity. Precious, sinful freedom. Wild positions. I learned much that week. I long to be able to forget it all and to return to ignorance. What bliss I’d know.
Truth is, I would have made a terrible botanist. A terrible scientist. I flunked chemistry and my interest in the field is very narrow. At best.
Some nights I leave my house and wander the streets of Washington, visiting those places where love is for sale or at least for barter. While walking I question my sanity again, wonder if any mother’s daughter is safe with me on the prowl. Might I see her likeness and thrust myself upon her, poor cherub? Unbeknownst victim of incest, innocent yet spoiled? But I’m not capable. You see, I have to be invited in, as she invited me. Legs spread, eyes rolled back St. Sebastian-like, trilling: come. So I look for the willing.
I’ve tried everything. Trust me. You name it, as kinky and as raunchy as they make it. Leather, spanking, drugs, domination, water sports—hoping to find a replacement for my addiction. I even tried bestiality once, but laughed so hard before I could go through with it that I fear I traumatized the pitiful creature.
I even tried men. I did a number of times, when the heat was of a contorting nature where my madness and reason attacked each other like dolphin and shark. I found them on those nights walking the streets, but before I divined it, I had some Jamonica-hued boy in bed, only to rediscover disappointment, impotence, when I reached between his legs and found not blood, not a gapping raw, never-healing wound, but a baby dragon near a hairy cave, leeking white flames. I sent most of them home before I even started.
I don’t walk the streets as much as I used to. Too many people searching for too many things. Confusion is my enemy. My focus is clear.
I sit here writing, scribble, scribble, scribble. What do I think I’m accomplishing? All else has failed so I think the writing will exorcise the demon in me? Am I possessed? Is Merrim, Prince of the Air, whispering over my shoulder? Claptrap. I have one of the best educations money can buy, and all I can do is confide to paper. What’s wrong with this picture?
I’ve done my reading. All my homework. Should I tell you what I’ve found? Shall I quote Whitman or Auden or Pound? Shall I give you a Canto or a Quartet? Hughes or Baraka or Hayden? Lincoln or DuBois? Elliot’s, “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be”? Steven’s, “If her horny feet protrude, they come to should how dumb she is, and cold.”? Brooks, “Where you have thrown me, scraped me with you kiss”? Moore’s, “Arise, for it is day”? From Dr. Miller, Dr. Sacks, Dr. Bettelheim, Dr. Gruen? Anything. Read to you from my commonplace book, tease you with the profane, the sacred phrases that strike me, struck me? I have them all. Words. Babble. They give me no answers, so I give them back, spit them up and out. I choke on them. I sniff them, but I smell no blood. Alas.
I must be fair. She’s struggling now. Not about me. Not with the memory of what’s been done. No. She has no time for me, for the luxury. Seems Dr. Streeter’s scheme didn’t quite work for her. She’s trapped, you see. She fell in love. She married. But it’s not a happy tale. (Do I gloat?) He’s a trucker. Big, crude, sentimental. Name’s Fred. Can you believe it? Fred. Jesus. It seems after four years in college and all that talk about the Big City, she opted to remain in North Carolina, manage a pizza joint and make babies with Fred. Yes, Fred. The third is on the way. I don’t know what kind of magic that hairy australopithecus-looking, beer-guggling, cretin has in his pants or where ever he hides it, but she stays in a trailer outside Tarboro of all places, like slave, a mere shadow of the racy, witty, intelligent, Jamonica I knew.
I visited her last month, but I didn’t see her. Not the woman I smuggled into my dorm room, the woman I made laugh at horror movies and baked banana-walnut bread with; the woman whose menstrual blood I drank. Her body now misshapen from multiple births, now sullen-eyed, smoking even more, a sepia and hollering baby on her hip, another in her arms. She smiles, she looks, but her eyes never truly focus on anything, not TV, not her babies, not her dingy trailer, not Fred, certainly not me.
Tell me. Who am I searching for now? Where is she?
He beats her, you know. Now there’s a fucking cliche for you. Oh, yeah, my sister, the pretty one, she’s a battered wife now. He beats my sister, and she refuses to let anyone do anything about it. She goes home for a day, two; she goes back to him.
“You don’t have to put up with this shit,” I tell her.
She just looks at me, through me really. Her eyes are dry. Not reptilian, but pathetically mammalian. “You don’t get it, do you? Of course you don’t. How can you?”
She looks away. Not even staring into the wall, just looking.
I want to say: Teach me. Teach me. Teach me.
Madness? Obsession? Depravity? All I can think of is the smell of pubic hair, its look; the upper thigh, you know, where it connects to the center, that crevice there where the nerves cluster; the foot, you’ve licked a foot before, nibbled a heel? The sight, just the sight, of the clitoris, that red, wonderful, proboscis. Anatomy, anatomized, particles of a person. Hers, all hers. Just so much flesh otherwise. Not her. Not her. Her.
Two years. Freshman and sophomore years. Truly wicked. You see, nobody knew. Nobody knew she was my sister. She’d come for a weekend. A week, twice or thrice, staying in my room. All the guys thought me such a stud. I guess I was. More than even I knew. This older woman at my service, slipped past the RA, gasping in my room, my roommate, if not in bed with his own joy-toy, envious beyond expression. Hellatious fantasy. We did all the things college sweetkins do, the football games, the basketball games, the rock concerts, the pizza parlors, the movies. We were defying someone to blow our cover. I was too stupid, I guess we were too stupid, to think beyond the moment. It never happened. They never knew. If they had looked, and looked closely, they would have seen, if they looked beyond her light skin, my dark skin, her thick, long, mermaid’s hair, my tightly-curled, closely cropped hair, they could have seen, if they truly looked, that our mouths, our eyes, our chins cried brother, sister, sister, brother. But who would dare think such a thing? Who would dare do such a thing?
Two years of iniquitous bliss. And when it ended, I ended. How’s that for melodramatic?
That year, the end of the second year, I had a major fight with Dr. Streeter. You know, the one I don’t hate.
My grades were not up to snuff. I wonder why? I had been placed on something very like probation. Academic watch they called it.
“My son? A son of mine?”
“No. I don’t know what you’re doing up in Durham, but it’s got to stop. It—”
We hurtled words for hours, and somehow it managed to go beyond grade point and “discipline.” It got to father and son bullshit and at the top of my voice I remembered yelling: “But I don’t want to be you. Can’t you get it through your fucking skull. Don’t you know I hate your black ass?”
He did not move, aside from a twitching of his jaw. He left the room. He left the room and did not speak to me for two days. When he did it was to take me back to school. Making clear my fate was in my own hands. He had washed his.
I said I hated him. That day. Even then, I didn’t. I don’t. I didn’t have the words to express what I felt, so I said the opposite of what I meant. Does this make sense? Even now, my prolixity notwithstanding, I don’t know if I could tell him, face to face. I don’t even know if I can tell myself.
If she didn’t start it; she certainly did end it. Of course I was prepared, but how can you prepare to end something you have no business starting in the first place?
I noticed the change when she came to Duke that Friday. The way she seemed uncomfortable, not able to look me in the face. Our lovemaking became quick, mercilessly violent, yet elegiac in a tell-tale way, our bodies saying: No more. End it.
I took her to the airport that Sunday. She was going to visit her mother in New York. In the terminal she said she had to talk to me. We had a cup of coffee at the hot dog stand, 15 minutes before she had to board.
“We’ve got to stop this Aaron.”
“Why? We’ve been doing it for years now?”
I’ve seen her livid, but not like this. Not angry, but a mixture of anger, fear, and what I’d like to flatter myself as anticipating lack of love. Pain.
“‘Why?’ Think, son. Stop and think. Stop being horny Joe College and think. Will you do that, please? Think.”
I held my breath, fearing what I might say, knowing nothing.
“Are we going to get married, huh? Huh? Tell me, you idiot. Are we going to slip up and have a little abortion on our hands? Huh? Oh, God. Shit, Aaron. It’s wrong. Okay. Just wrong.”
“But—,” but my “but” hung there in the air, between us, it did a somersault in the air, between us, that word, a conjunction, a connection. It broke. Shattered. I saw it. A busted word.
“Oh, Jesus. You’re beautiful. You’re smart. But you’re such a shit. A beautiful shit. A selfish, beautiful son-of-a-bitch. God save us both, you little shit.”
“I’ll miss … I’ll … I’ll—”
“Save it for Thanksgiving.”
She rolled her eyes and reached for her bags. “We’ve both got some growing up to do.”
I watched her plane gaining altitude, and I know it sounds like the violins at the end of the movie, but there it was, there it went. There she went. Up, up, and away. Poof. Lights out. Show’s over. Wake the fuck up, kid. The dancing bear is done. The fat lady has quit singing. The freak show is over, buddy. Go home. The savior has ascended.
Here I sit, waiting for the Second Coming. But she ain’t. I know it. But I wait, I write, I fuck. My faith is the size of a kernel of corn. Ave Jamonica.
That Christmas I switched my major from botany to pre-law. I think it’s obvious.
There’s a dream. There’s always a dream. You want to hear corny? No, it’s not in a cornfield. And I don’t marry her. No, in my dream we’re home, in my mother and father’s bed, and we’re at the height, we’re outside our skins: and they walk in: Dad, Mom and Miss Jesse, too: and get this: they’re happy. They approve, They throw a party. They tell everyone. Everyone. They’s a celebration. I tell my dad I love him. I tell him I want to be just like him.
Talk about depravity. Talk about signs and symbols and shit. Talk about wishful talking.
You know, sin is like a MasterCard. You grin with delight when you use it, you’re the Aga Khan; but you cry like hell when the bill comes.
Who are you, anyway? Reading this? Who do I want you to be? Why do I want you to know? But of course, you are me, and I am you. We’ve sinned together, in the past. Remember? The past. You, me, us. All of we. I know you’re thinking. I can see the wheels turning. Please just quit it. Okay? Stop. Do you have to? All right then, go ahead. Think. Figure. I defy you, goddamn you. I defy you to analyze and pontificate. I defy Mr. Lacan to tear the symbols from the signs of my misery. I defy Mr. Barthes to contextualize my grief and deconstruct my pain. I defy Mr. Gates to problematize my loss into the tapestry of Blackness and to go signifyin(g) on my anger. Boy, ain’t I literary; I ain’t shit.
I sit here. I sit here beyond pity and love and hope, a vomitous bone-house of shit and spit and semen and shame. I sit here regurgitating the past as if to heal myself with confession, knowing I can’t, I won’t. I sit here, thinking of a woman who does not exist, will never exist. Some Faulknerian heroine, some cliched tragic mulatto from antebellum trash, some Greek daughter of the gods come down to taunt, to tease, to test my mettle. I failed. Miserably. My hubris has poisoned me; my sin has undone me. I am a pathetic, weak, fart-fueled clod of earth, earth wherein I shall surely return, soon and very soon, unworthy of pity, wretched in my grovelling, pitiful in my remorse: I am the blind beggar who does not deserve to see—and if I was so blessed, guess who I’d look for?
Willow weep for me.
Randall Kenan was raised in Chinquapin, North Carolina. Currently, he teaches Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. This story is from a collection, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) which will be out this spring.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.