Deeper Investigations into a New Voice

Tonight’s post was inspired by “In My Aunt’s Apartment,” a lyrical essay by Demian Hess. This has not been proof read, fact checked, or heart-checked by my family, so don’t hold them accountable for anything I say. This is my subjective recollection and creative re-telling of one incident.

It is that easy time after supper, after chores, but before bedtime. Dad is in his recliner, which makes him laugh, because he thinks Lay-Z-Boy’s are for old men and he is only forty. But this is the 1980’s and Reagan says thumbs up and we are big-house, nuclear-family happy even though we don’t believe in trickle-down economics. Mom is filing her nails, her feet resting on the floor where I sit, leaning into her legs. We fit like this, a family of three, one Lego piece alongside another, two dogs that bark and run in circles.

It’s basketball season and we are rooting for Drexler, Williams, Robinson, Porter, and Duckworth—our fab five of the Portland Trailblazers whose home game is broadcast LIVE! TONIGHT! ON NBC!

And there is a turnover, that fast: Drexler to Robinson, the fake, a pivot, pass it back to Drexler and whoosh!, 2 more points to put us in the lead and that’s when the camera zooms in on the crowd that is all colors and smiles, flags waving and lips shouting, and there is this white boy, wearing authentic NBA jersey shorts that ride so low on his waist the cuffs nearly touch the floor.

The boy fills the television screen and there he is with his bandana do-rag, flashing a “west side” gang symbol and I say—“Look, he’s such a wigger,”—and there is a turnover, that fast: Dad flies outta the chair at my face, his eyes like a tree bore, twisting into me and his words coming at me from some adult place that I do not understand yet—“What did you say?”

“I said that boy’s a wigger.”

“Don’t you ever, EVER, say that word in this household again!” His voice bends and cracks and I say, “Dad, dad, it means he’s pretending, it means he’s a phony, it’s a word from that comes from school—” but he hoists me up and points at the stairs which means Go to your room, and I am going, going gone.

Later, Mom will come downstairs to talk to me: “Do you know what that word sounds like?” and only then do I remember, nigger, that word on the list of words you never, ever say and I sob, “Yes, yes, I know what it sounds like but that’s not what I said. I said a word from that comes from school. It’s for a white person who pretends to be black.”

I go upstairs, stand in front of the recliner and tell this to my father, whose own father was a Methodist minister studying at Boston University School of Theology under the same professor as Martin Luther King, Jr. Whose own mother was first generation, a full-blooded Sicilian born in South Boston amidst a slough of Irish Catholics, who used words like dago and wop for her kind.

I tell this to my father who forgives me and goes someplace into himself that is sad, sad, like I’ve confirmed how society is changing for the worse and there is a turnover, that fast, where I promise myself I will never, ever say anything that comes from some place other than my own heart.

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