The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
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She takes a breath to feel the air snake its way through her lungs. There is nothing she can do to reverse the day’s events. There is nothing she can do but stare. Here, with her father laid out before her like a piece of meat under a butcher’s glass, all she can do is fix her eyes on the horizon. And if she finds a point, a buoy or a ship or even an airplane moving slowly across the sky, if she finds that point, and if it’s far enough away, and if she stares at that point until her eyes begin to tear, then she can say without guile, without deceit or exaggeration, that on the day her father died, she, Clare Heller, actually cried.
But Clare doesn’t cry. She tries for a long time, lines of frustration fork her brow, but however hard she tries she can’t. Clare is not prone to crying, in fact she can’t remember the last time she cried, and if we were looking at her, say, from a branch outside the window we could see the look of consternation on her face. We could see how she narrows her eyes and nibbles on her lip and how when she takes a deep breath the cilia in her nose wave like a tiny field of wheat. At 19, Clare still has about her the callowness of a child. The dime-sized dimples and short, unkempt hair. She wears blue jeans and a button-down shirt, and perhaps it is the fairness of her complexion, but in the half-distorted light of dusk her small, even features nearly blend into one.
But beware. Though Clare may at times look like a 12-year-old boy, if she heard you say that she’d be very disappointed. She might turn her back on you just as she is doing now. Clare is small but she isn’t fragile, and when she is displeased, she makes a point of letting you know. It isn’t so much that Clare is quick to anger, although there is a bit of the sanctimonious in her; it is more that she feels an over-abundance of conviction. Clare holds her opinions like the reins of a horse. When she’s right, she’s right; when she’s wrong she won’t fall off.
The truth is, Clare has inherited her mother’s stubborn streak. There are in fact many similarities between Clare and her mother. Take, for example, the photograph that sits next to her father’s bed. In it her mother is laughing with her blond hair blowing in the wind. She is pale-skinned, too, and prominently dimpled, and there is a willful set to her heart-shaped jaw. Mary Katherine Heller was by all accounts a persuasive woman; when she spoke you heard her and when she entered a room you looked up. It has always been hard for Clare to imagine she resembles this woman, no matter how often her father addresses her as Kate, and how often he looks at her and his eyelids are heavy with desire. In Clare’s world her mother is a magical force. She is an angel, a cherub, a voice spinning sugar on silver-coated wings. Clare may remember little about her mother, but in the years since her death Kate has achieved the impermeability of a character in a myth. She could be Demeter or Persephone lost in the underworld, ready one day to rise from the dead.
For what Clare does remember about her mother is often prompted by a scene in a photograph. She has spent many hours rifling through the photos in her father’s desk, but her most vivid memory comes from a picture on the mantel. Their whole family is there: Clare, her brother Jeb, her father, and her mother, who is wearing a floral-print skirt. It is summer, they are at a carnival, and as Clare remembers it, the air is warm with expectation. She can see the blinking lights, and hear the ringing bells, and feel the prickly heat at the back of her neck. The sun is shining hot on her shoulders. Behind them, a Ferris wheel spins and rainbow flags flutter from every seat. The scene is a barrage, the inside of a kaleidoscope, and over the din Clare can hear her mother suggest they take a ride. Let’s go, she says, tugging at her husband’s sleeve. Martin balks and shakes his head. He is not one for games, he says, but she asks him again, this time more insistent, and with a conspiratorial grin, she slides the four of them into a narrow wooden car. Clare sits in her mother’s lap. She can feel her mother’s arm snug around her waist, and as the giant wheel begins to turn, the car swings gently back and forth. At first the motion feels like the tightening of a wrench, cranking one round and then another, and then like steam from an engine, Clare’s muscles begin to hiss. Her stomach sputters. She clenches her teeth. They make their way higher, slowly toward the top, and as the car rocks like a seesaw Clare can feel fear like a rabbit in her chest. And then it stops. The car stops, teasing them like a schoolgirl. They sit there for a moment, suspended in the air. Clare’s mother smiles. She points with her toes at the people on the ground, waving a hand, yelling “Hello down there,” and all at once Clare feels as weightless as an atom. She can see all the way to the far side of the island and the big houses lining the shore. She can see beach umbrellas as small as ladybugs and swimmers bobbing in a ribbon of waves. Clare tries to wiggle her hand out from beneath her mothers arm. She wants to touch the air, to feel it cool against her palm, then just as she thinks she is about to reach it, the car plunges like a penny toward the ground. Around and around, Clare feels the pitch and shudder. The wheel turns, faster and faster, and her mother laughs, and Clare’s vision blurs and the wind burns her delicate cheeks.
When Clare opens her eyes the room is dark. Her breathing is thin and shallow and it takes her a moment to regulate her breath. In the distance, a siren whines low and mournful, and she crosses the room with short, decisive steps.
In the bathroom, she splashes cool water on her face. She dries herself with a towel before retrieving a washbasin from the ledge above the door. It takes a few minutes for the water in the sink to run hot, and Clare sits quietly on the toilet while she waits. She looks around. The vanity is covered with salves and lotions and bottles of pills. There is a jar of cotton balls on the ledge above the sink and a half-empty bottle of shampoo next to the tub. She has seen all of these objects before, but today it is as if she is seeing them for the first time: her father’s razor, his dentures, a bar of soap. Everything looks strangely bright and new. Colors throb, molecules converge, and everything seems to occupy its space more fully. Clare realizes suddenly that death has made her more aware. It is as though she is a deer in the woods, crouched and waiting for the hunter to appear. She is in a state of readiness, her nose sniffing the wind and her ears primed for the snap of a twig. It is as if she can sense the danger, the smell of old urine absorbed into the floorboards, the particles of dirt gathering on her skin. All day her father has been lying there, death swarming over him like a parasite. The thought makes her queasy, and this is the reason, she knows, she must bathe him. Her father should be as clean as on the day he was born. He should be absolved, unburdened, a tabula rasa clean of doubt or fear. Because isn’t that the way one is supposed to meet one’s maker, when one’s soul travels up to heaven and through the pearly gates? Isn’t that the way it is supposed to happen? Because soon, Clare knows, the worldly body will decompose. His eyes will rot, his bones will wither. He’ll be like a jack-o’-lantern left too long on the porch, growing softer and softer, all pulp and seeds and fibrous strings, until finally he collapses into himself.
Clare coughs at the steam rising from the spigot. She is careful not to burn herself as she fills the basin, and tossing a towel over her arm, returns to the bedroom, where she takes her seat and rests the basin in her lap. Washing her father is a familiar task for Clare. Since his stroke four months ago, she has bathed him daily, cleaning under his fingernails and between his toes. Seeing her father up so close has been an education, and with a detective’s scrutiny she noticed the pucker of his nipples and the angular notches on the sides of his hips. At first she was uncomfortable with the intimacy of her duties, but soon there came an even detachment, even a flush of excitement when she discovered the birthmark on his left buttock cheek. And the most astonishing thing of all had been her father’s genitals. They were so limp and shriveled they looked like baby birds that had been smothered in their nest.
Those first few days after they returned from the hospital, Clare was surprised that he was so removed while she washed him. She expected a dose of modesty, even a hint of a blush. If it had been her, she would have insisted that he cover her with a sheet. But no; her father simply lay there with his head turned toward the window. Sometimes he smiled at something she said, or twitched if the water was too hot or too cold, but for the most part he was silent, in his own private world.
It bothered her at first. She worried that the doctors hadn’t told her everything, that some large part of his brain was dead and useless, a deserted house on a country road. But soon Clare came to appreciate his silence. It comforted her. The regularity of the task made her feel safe, and the hour of his washing became the most anticipated hour of her day. There, with the warm soapy water cosseting her hands, she would hum her favorite pop song and look out her father’s window to the long wharf jutting out into the bay. The harbor. Long Point harbor, with its rickety drawbridge and its sailboats bobbing like candy apples. From her father’s window she could take in the entire panorama: the sloops maneuvering out of their moorings, tacking past the breakwater and out into the quicksilver bay. For as long as Clare could remember, her father’s bed was smack-dab against the window, so close that you couldn’t squeeze a coin in between. She grew up with this view, and on the days when there was no activity in the harbor, she looked instead at the edifice of the Old Whaler’s Church.
From where she sits now, Clare has an unobstructed view of the church, and if we were sitting on our perch outside the window, we could see the old building too. We could see that it is the most important example of Egyptian Revival architecture anywhere on the East Coast. We could see, if we looked closely, that its central pyramid is flanked by two identical pylons, and that the church sits squarely on the ground like a guillotined sphinx. By all accounts—and we would agree—the church is an imposing structure. It is worthy of God, worthy of prayer, and although many of its parishioners wouldn’t agree, we would share Clare’s opinion that the steeple is the church’s most distinctive feature. At 185 feet, it towers over the town like a sentry. Thin as an isthmus, it is the tallest structure on the East End of Long Island; the tip of its spine is visible for miles. When the church was built in 1845, there were those who feared that the steeple was too grand. Too ostentatious, they said. Such a prideful display would drive the citizens of Long Point to strive for beauty, not for good. Those were the days when Long Point was a bustling port. Dozens of boats sailed in and out of the harbor, there was money to spend, but not always in the most devoted of ways. Brothels and taverns lined the streets near the harbor, and when whaling expeditions could last as long as four years, when the sailors sacrificed themselves to sharks and scurvy and the smell of burning blubber, it was more important to those dissenters that God, not a whore, be the first thing sailors see. And although there were even those who believed that the end of whaling could somehow be blamed on the extravagance of the steeple, Clare’s father didn’t believe that nonsense.
In her father’s eyes the steeple was an architectural achievement. It was proof that man could approach the ingenuity of God. Clare was very small when he pointed out how its Corinthian columns tapered to its crowning minaret. If you look closely, he said, showing her the alternating rows of carved rosettes, you can see that it resembles the shape of a spyglass. He went on to explain, almost giddy with excitement, how a telescope uses refraction to bring distant objects into focus, and best of all, he said, clapping his hands, was that the spyglass could be used to see far out to sea. With the help of the spyglass, he told her, she could see whole schools of fish, from snails and smolts and stingrays to sharks. She could see their spindle-shaped bodies and spiny fins and their eyes that throbbed like overexcited hearts. Thanks to the spyglass she could even see as far as the island of Jamaica, and what was once a tiny dot on a map became a lush green paradise of palm trees and conch shells and snow-white beach.
Often, at the end of the day, Clare would meet her father at the door of the factory, and together they would walk the short distance home, stopping briefly at the church to sit for a while. The church was set on a grassy knoll just a few blocks from the town square. So late in the day no one was there, and they would lie on their backs in the adjacent graveyard, her father with a piece of grass in his mouth and Clare’s head resting on the marble of her mother’s grave. It’s been quite a while since Clare went to the church, but she still remembers the quiet sound of their breath and the indigo sky hovering above them like a seagull.
The last time she was there was the summer she was 14. It was an unusually dry summer that year, arid and hot, and she spent most of her days at the town beach. That was where she met Billy Crump on a scorching afternoon when he invited her to meet him under the shadow of the steeple. Billy was 16, he had dark hair and the beginnings of a mustache. He was good looking in a kind of rough-edged way, and that appealed to Clare almost as much as his deep-set eyes. Billy had dropped out of school the year before and was working with his father down at the shipyard. Thanks to all the heavy lifting, Billy had developed the kind of shoulders that made the fabric of his T-shirt strain. Clare watched him out of the corner of her eye. She liked the way his muscles moved, stealthily like a snake, and she wanted to be a mouse swallowed whole inside.
There was a lazy ease to Billy, a slightly reckless twinge to his jaw, and when he asked her if she would join him, her immediate response was yes.
She told her father she was going to the movies.
“What’s playing?” he asked, his eyes never straying from the pages of his book.
“Cyrano” she said. She had seen the poster in the theater window, and she kissed her father’s cheek before he could ask her more.
She walked briskly to the church. The pavement was still warm, she could feel it through the soles of her shoes. By the time she reached the church, Billy was already there. He’d spread a blanket on the grass and had a paper bag filled with cans of Rheingold beer. Take one, he said with his crooked grin, and she hesitated at first but then sat down next to him. The beer tasted metallic and made her burp, but she drank it anyway. A tremor went through her, almost like a gargle, and she lay on her back and looked up at the stars.
“I’m going to Korea soon,” Billy said. He inched his body toward her and she could smell the carbonation on his breath.
“I thought you had to be 18 to join up.”
Billy shook his head. “I’m 17 end of this month and my daddy’s got pull down at the Legion.” When Billy spoke, his brown eyes were as brittle as bark, and when he talked about the war they grew dark with concentration and it seemed that he could look right through her. Clare could feel his eyes like a hole in her skin, like a finger probing a deep sore, and she nodded and took a sip of her beer.
“You could get killed, you know.”
“Yeah, I know, and you could die right here.” Billy leaned a little closer, his eyes now black as coal. “I’d rather get hit by some sniper than get stuck living in this little town. My Dad’s been working the same job since he was ten, and just you wait, 20 years from now your life will be exactly the same.”
“And the people you leave behind?” Clare’s voice was a purr. She took another sip and felt the beer pool on her eager lips.
“What about them?” he asked. His voice was a whisper. “They’ll be here when I get back. And by then things will be different. I’ll be a hero, you’ll see.” And then he kissed her. He was gentle at first, smooth as caramel, and Clare could feel his tongue pushing inside her mouth. It was spreading her lips, a serpent’s tongue darting in and out, and she let it struggle a moment longer before ushering it in. She held the sides of his head, his slightly greasy hair between her slender fingers and as she kissed him back, her mouth open wide, she wanted to go deeper, past the enamel of his teeth to the tiny lentils on the back of his tongue. His arms were wrapped around her as strong and urgent as a river, and she felt the air collapsing in her lungs.
“I want you,” he said, his hands straying to the buttons of her shirt.
She pushed him away. “When you get back,” she said. She sounded coy even to herself.
“But why?” He inched closer, the current shifting. “No one will know.” There was a wave of menace in his voice, and Clare was drifting now, losing her balance and for an instant she felt the beer rising in her throat. It came to her suddenly, like a life buoy tossed from the side of a ship, and all at once Clare could see things very clearly. She felt stupid, like a fool. She should never have come here. But if she was a tease, Billy was a swine. He was a low-rent blabbermouth, and as soon as he had the opportunity, she was sure he’d be down at the shipyard with his buddies. One grope, one graze, and one tiny little lick but Clare had no doubt Billy would be bragging and flapping his lips.
And brag he did. Billy described their romp in explicit detail: her small hard nipples; the mole on her left hip; the way she bit his cock and rubbed his cum on her lips. In the weeks before Billy left, he told the story again and again, and each time he told it, it ascended to new heights so that by the time he left for Korea, it was common knowledge that Clare swallowed and that she had exceptionally good tits. Thanks to Billy’s colorful storytelling, no one noticed that the scene he described was suspiciously familiar, that it sounded surprisingly similar to his tryst the year before with Madeline Thorpe, and that his tryst with Madeline Thorpe was nearly indistinguishable from his encounter with Eleanor Payne. No one noticed these inconsistencies except perhaps Clare, who let the rumor float around her like a gas. She sat back, indignant, but let the story build so that by the time Billy landed on the shores of Korea, the rumor had become an incident, and the incident common knowledge, and common knowledge sealed into the pages of a book. The truth smoldered there like a flower stuck between sheets of parchment, blurring words and making them impossible to read. The idea that one day she could avenge herself sat daily in Clare’s mind. It haunted her. It grew in her like a Virginia creeper, clinging to her organs and wrapping itself like a vise around her bones. Clare felt the pincers of vengeance inside her at all times and it made her motions awkward and her step ungainly. That her friends deserted her was the worst of all, and for months she kept to herself, sated by the fact that one day Billy would come home. And when he came home, he would be no hero. She was sure of that. There would be no parade, no bunting, no 21 gun salute. When Billy came back he would return to the shipyard; his back would ache; his gut would expand; he’d grow old and vile and decrepit alone, and then, only then, would Clare be redeemed.
The trouble though, was that Billy didn’t come back. There was no parade, no float, no party at the Legion because Billy returned inside a cedar box. The letter his parents received, with its embossed seal and its soaring eagle, said that Billy had died bravely in the line of duty. But that was only the story his parents wanted to believe. What actually happened was far more pathetic, so pathetic in fact that it made Clare smile. The truth was, or so she believed, that Billy was captured by a North Korean guerilla. He was off with a buddy shooting up horse, and when they found him two months later, he was sitting on the ground in a North Korean prison, a hole in his head and a bowl of rice in his lap. Even now Clare can only imagine what his skull must have looked like, how many maggots and insects had considered it home. On the day he was buried, Clare stood off to the side, out of sight behind the church. Billy was interred not 50 feet from where she kissed him, and she wondered what he had been thinking at the moment he died. If he saw a brilliant corona at the end of a long hall, or just his own blood congealing with the rice.
The image chills her. It is dark in the room save for the street light, and Clare realizes that the water in the basin has gone cold. She wets the towel anyway and begins to unbutton her father’s shirt. The buttons slide easily through their well-worn holes, and she savors the moment, her hands releasing one arm and then the next. Once her father is finally naked she begins to bathe him. She works in small practiced circles, the street light humming and the cold water from the basin mixing with her tears.
Jenifer Berman is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB, Bookforum,The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She is currently working on a first novel, The Book of John.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.