from NER 39.3 (2018)
My mother spends an hour easing the chest open, depositing jaundiced pieces of lung into cloudy glasses of formalin. She tilts her head and smiles, tongue pressed into the gap in her teeth.
A spongy layer of yellow fat, flush against slack purple muscle, a freckled lung—after death, all organs become indiscreet. They betray the clear, scentless liquors, the furious clockwork of cigarettes. When the liver comes out, it is heavy and fried.
Because my mother works at the VA, her subjects tend to be male. Old soldiers without families. Like my father. This is the first time a body has been female, and after the chest cavity is smooth, she breaches the pelvis and sighs. A hysterectomy. She opens it up and asks me to notice what is not there.
But all I can think about is the metallic, fecal smell. The accumulation of waste around the cadaver’s thighs and feet. The curt, penciled script that says, seventy-two, white, cirrhotic. I am two months out of high school, and when the residents lead me down into the morgue, they ask which medical school I want to attend. I don’t have the heart to tell them that I will study literature at a small college upstate. As the fluids drain, it feels too frivolous to say.
At my age, my mother was thin and high with two young sons. Riding the train to keep warm at night, Bayridge to Jamaica Queens. In the rehabilitation center, they made her wear all white and re-enact her birth.
With me, my mother did everything differently. She took me to church, and then at home we talked about alkaloids uncoupling from their salt, the lattice in the freebase, pooling on a spoon. She didn’t leave anything out: Her knees buckling in Bed-Stuy. The cherry lodged between pink halves of brain, seeking rupture in that perfect, prototypical high. She was especially frank about sex, determined that I have the vocabulary to know what is mine.
I became more straight-laced than she planned. I wore baggy clothes, refused her attempts to throw birthday parties. I called family meetings to talk about how we could better keep the sabbath. I was ambivalent about boys, but passionate about my comics and all the iterations of Robin—Dick, the circus orphan; Jason, the one the Joker turned inside out; and Stephanie, the Robin with tits. When I received my first bad grade, she held the report card to the light and said, honestly, I’m relieved.
In our small Bronx apartment, we shared socks and slept in the same bed. She sewed our dress clothes—gloves, skirts, and headscarves from kente and ukara—sheaves of African textiles draped over her shoulders and arms. On Fridays, we followed the sun’s arc through the sky. We welcomed the sabbath, forgave the light pollution and watery dusk.
She was dark and cool and preposterous in church clothes, and I was territorial, disturbed by how men exerted themselves to look at her. She kept a secret smile behind her hand during tithe. Because everywhere we went, men were looking. To her, it was just a matter of course. But I hated the idea that one day it might happen to me.
When I was seven, she met my stepfather. It was their second meeting, actually, a chance encounter in Crown Heights. When they first met a few decades earlier, the timing was wrong. She was seventeen and he was forty-one. She slipped into a bar where he was smoking and drinking and married. She pulled him onto the dance floor, and when he smiled, the fillings in his teeth were gold.
She introduced him to me with this seventeen-year-old giddiness. I knew enough about sex to tell him what his aged genitals were not permitted to do. Still, he wore a powder blue suit the day they stood before the justice of the peace. She wanted me to have a father. He wanted a third wife.
His first two wives were dead, and my mother was a year into her marriage before she understood why. He was a charismatic veteran with a fake limp and a silver cane and my grudge was no match for his charm. I sat in my room and enjoyed hating him. I reminded him of his age, thrilled by the idea of an adult I could hurt. But he took my abuse, sang to me at night. He opened his chocolate tin and pulled me onto his shoulders. And on the first night I wandered into his room to wake him from a nightmare, I knew I’d lost.
Then the money disappeared. My mother stood in the hallway in her robe, baseball bat propped underneath her palm. There was a strongbox underneath the sink piled with crumpled bills. Men came to our house for what my father owed. They couldn’t describe his face, but they knew my mother’s middle name.
At our new home upstate, my mother put fresh carpet in my room. She left a corner loose and told me to slide my allowance underneath. I found that my father was hard and creased and prone to improvisation. In his bedtime stories, characters had distinct vocal tics. He taught me how to swim, or rather, he sat at the edge of the community pool and willed me not to drown. He told me about his nightmares, the Pacific pearling with oil and shoes. When he wore his military regalia to our new church, boys gathered around him and asked how it felt to kill. His answer was always that the movies lie. He had a specific bone to pick with Saving Private Ryan regarding verisimilitude, but we stayed up late watching Turner Classic Movies where no black people exist.
He told me about fighting alongside contemptuous white soldiers, about returning home only to be ushered through back doors. Those were the only things I didn’t believe, even as the white children in my new school pulled their hands through my hair. It couldn’t have been that bad, I said, and my parents, in sync for once, looked at each other and sighed.
In middle school, I still went to his room to ransack his chocolate tin. He had cultivated my sweet tooth, though occasionally he would turn away from a game to tell me my face was getting fat. Something external and unacknowledged was sharpening and dulling his teeth. He slipped out of the house and went to the OTB, stood in front of a wall of snowy, convex screens. The horses waded through static, and our dinner disappeared. My mother broke the news. That there was a man who won, and a man who lost.
During my freshman year of high school, my mother worked extra hours to make up for missing portions of the rent. Freelance alterations to drapes and formal wear. Late hours at homes for people with severe developmental disabilities. Brushing their teeth and dodging their fists and racial slurs. She splayed on the couch at 2am in her puffy winter coat, fast asleep. One night on the way home, she couldn’t keep her eyes open and totaled the car. She emerged from a ditch on 87 with a mouth full of blood.
A few months later, she enrolled in a local college to study mortuary science. She sagged in my doorway with a stack of textbooks, asked if I could help her type. One more thing changed: when we went out together, men looked at me.
She wanted me to lean in, shave my legs, and preen. Sensing her stories of teen pregnancy had scared me into asexuality, she nudged me toward uninterested boys in our church. She reneged on the utility of sex, talked about the upside of recreational pleasure. There were four old women who sat in the back pew of our church, and they had never had sex. She said, do you see how unhappy they are?
My mother took to her studies, the anatomical spread, the translucent overlay of muscle, bone, and circuitry. She craned over a pot of oxtail, feathering onions and reading about pathogens that looked like house spiders. She sat at the dinner table with her books. A virus inverts a cell into friendly fire. A protein braids itself into skin. A synapse floods with serotonin, and the hand holding the needle knows, more. In the middle of the night, she walked through the striated rooms of the heart. She took organic chemistry, left drafts of long alkaline chains around the house. She took a Russian elective just for the hell of it. And despite her wonder that I would turn out so square, she became a teacher’s pet.
Then she took a course on the psychology of grief. She asked me if I was scared to die. My father wasn’t. His nightmares were always of other men, the randomness and indignity of their last breaths. All of his friends and siblings were dead. He mixed up their names in conversation and shrugged. At a church funeral, he rushed to the body to appraise the application of rouge and turned to me to mock the wig. He said he was not afraid to die, because now he could see it coming.
My mother wasn’t afraid to die because after all she’d done, it still hadn’t come. She’d had her fair share of lives, been high and half-dead and armed to the teeth. Been car wrecked, beaten, and pursued by the nypd. She said that when death finally came, she would open her arms and say, what took you so long? But I was terrified to die. I was terrified for my parents, who seemed to beckon it by their nonchalance. The only thing that comforted me was a single line of scripture—Ecclesiastes 9:5—The dead know nothing. Years before I left the church, this was the only promise of peace I believed.
One day, my mother came home with a ball of wax. She was in the cosmetic unit, where the lectures focused on preservation, paint, and spackle. She was the oldest person in her class, but her skill as a seamstress put her ahead of the curve. The ball of wax was an assignment. Sculpt a human head. Apply color and hair. Around the emergence of the nose and lips, I realized it was my father’s face.
Throughout my junior year of high school, my father’s head moved around the house in distinct stages of actualization. In the kitchen with half an eyelid. In the living room with a single tuft of gray hair. On the dinner table with sleepy, brown acrylic eyes. My father refused to acknowledge it. A new friend came over, spotted it on the window sill, and never came over again. I watched my mother stitch a hairline and I asked if she would be able to do these things for me. She said, of course,fearing that my face might fall into incapable white hands and a flagrant reduction of the color wheel into the “nude” spectrum between ecru and pink.
To die before her would be bad enough. To look insufficiently brown at my funeral would be more than she could bear. This was why she chose mortuary science. Black people in open caskets, underserved by careless hands and shoddy blending. My mother mumbled over the pin between her teeth, that this was the moment that mattered. The last hour above ground. An eyelash out of alignment mattered. The difference between umber and burnt sienna mattered. My mother walked to class with my father’s head under her arm. And it was uncanny—the height and coil of his ears, the freckles across his large, flared nose. The only thing was that she had given him less hair. Otherwise, it was perfect, a glossy page in her portfolio to take to parlors across the Capital District.
She took the bus to her interviews, trudged through the snow in a Goodwill suit and battered kitten heels. It was strange to see her nervous, to watch her gaze into the mirror and fret over the gap in her teeth. My father, maintaining that her choice to go back to school had been an impractical one, looked through the kitchen window and watched her go.
My father was the weather system at the center of the house, the routine burst of low pressure that funneled us all into air. But he was otherwise averse to change. It upset him when my mother decided to paint our walls blue, and for a year the project was suspended while they fought, ribbons of cyan creeping from the baseboards, strokes of ultramarine reaching for a single chandelier.
There was a boy in our congregation who smoked behind the church. He kept his eyes open during prayers and smiled at me when I started doing it too. My father didn’t care about my loss of faith. But the smoking boy was a pointed violation of the rules—that I be selective and chaste, a candidate for the standard black parent credo of “twice as good” by abstaining from such ordinary pitfalls as dating.
This was one of the major foundations of my relationship with my father: a baseless indulgence in snobbery. Though our bond began on the back of an onslaught of irresistible gifts—candies, post-bedtime television, a new kitten that came shortly after they married—it persisted because of his gratuitous accounts of carnage and my gratitude for the conspiracy of adulthood. My fascination with his frayed post-traumatic nerves, and his glee that I might be similarly inclined to avoid sources of high stimulation, like parties and dances and dates with long-armed, adolescent boys. He praised me for my social restraint, a couple decades too old to recognize the early aught signs of loserdom. He learned how to use our computer just to regale me with specs from elite northeastern schools. And it was easier to see it his way, that my loneliness wasn’t the result of my pear shape and rabid Jesus-love, but instead a result of being too smart to be understood. To date this boy, who was darkening his lungs and white, was an insult my father could not abide. So the chocolate tin disappeared, and despite my hiding place, so did portions of the money I’d saved from a part-time job.
My father was correct about one thing. No one would take my mother on as an apprentice. She leafed through her portfolio on the bus home, undid the top buttons of her coat. She came home long enough to warm a meal and do her hair in such a way that it could not be pulled. She left for her night job without a word, and my father would say, I told her so. More and more I saw him as a man excited by the obvious. A man who watched movies and was compelled to neutralize the subtext with explanation. A man too overt to understand when a silence is a scream. But his old age, once my own bratty hyperbole, became real. My chest tightened when he stooped to grab a coin. It was the only obvious thing he didn’t notice—time’s dull creep, the sudden milkiness of his eyes, how he had begun to repeat himself.
In interviews, there were questions my mother didn’t know how to answer. What was her employment history between 1970 and 1990? And she would say, raising children, omitting the uppers, the psilocybic hallucinations sharpened by the dysfunction of the MTA. And though they were diplomatic when they asked how she felt about the physical demands of the job, she understood in their questions a statement of the impossible. It was a deeply athletic undertaking, four to seven hours craned over flesh and fumes. She was middle-aged and five whole feet tall. She was trying, but she felt it the moment she entered a room. She was never the person they expected.
She started her job at the VA a few months before I get accepted into college. It had none of the cosmetic elements that drew her to the field. It was remote, procedural work. She cleared the cavity, collected samples, and kept her stitches clean. There was no putty and rouge. No lipstick and brine. When she came home, her hair smelled phenolic even though she wore a full-body suit.
When I go to see her work, she provides an identical suit for me. My breath collects behind the mask. The residents all remark to me how strange it is to meet my mother, to have heard of her serious, silken stitches, and find her, in actuality, so small and so buoyant. When we stand next to each other, people always note how much we look alike. They joke about the limp genes of the biological father I forget I have. Relatives look at my face and pause mid-sentence, horrified by the reanimation of our mother at her most deadly age.
My mother and I know the difference is strictly dispositional. She is wild and sunny and I am a violent overreaction to the cost of all that chaos and light. When we take pictures together, I appear as a grave echo, churchy and flat. When I walk into the morgue in my baggy suit, I’m determined to be nonchalant. But when the body is finally before me, all I feel is awe.
My mother lowers her goggles and begins. She cracks the body open along a careful, dotted seam, strips the upholstery with a steady hand. She moves in between her knives and a system of silver spigots, some to drain the waste, others to steady the flow of methanol. She cradles the head in her hand, lifts a small buzz-saw to the skull, and spools the gray flesh of the brain. She lifts the scalp back over the skull and stands poised with her needle and thread. After it’s done, we move silently into the other room and step out of our suits. We wash up side by side. We stop for burgers and fries and arrive home where again, it is only us.
My father is gone. The day it happened, everything was ordinary. No black birds on telephone wires made human sounds. It was a day that was ready to be forgotten, until 11:54pm, when it deepened and stilled, preening like a holiday. After a few manic calls to the police, we discovered everything he’d taken. On Wednesday, his phone number didn’t exist. We ate leftovers and cried in separate rooms. We checked the news for dead black men while we ran brushes through our hair, but of course dead black men are everywhere. Aunts came over to stroke our backs and bask in schadenfreude. The house filled with people, and none of them were him. I crawled into my mother’s bed and lay suspended between her soft snoring and Nick at Nite.
As the months pass, I make allowances. I attribute his departure to all the lives he lived before me. The orphanage and the roaches in his oatmeal, the shrapnel in his back and the gun in his smooth, teenaged hands. But at night, my empathy appears as what it really is, a smug investment in myself as the exception. That I might be adjacent to his fiction, and somehow never be a part of it myself.
There is a single zoot suit in his closet, a comb still caked with pomade. My mother puts on the suit and dismantles his bed, and when the lottery drawing comes on, we sit in front of the TV and eat all of the chocolate we found in his room. When my college acceptance letter comes, she takes me into her arms and lifts me off my feet. These moments of happiness now come with footnotes. It is the improbability of packing my bags and closing the door. The idea that now I have to leave her too. Her loneliness occurs to me like it never has before, and I think of my hand in the preservation of her isolation.
The night before I leave for college, she crawls into my bed. I have been avoiding her, because lately all we do is fight. We fight about haircuts and student loans. We fight in the church parking lot and at my high school graduation. I’ve been trying to be harder and cooler for so long, I cannot admit my fear. But I am preoccupied with thoughts of her alone in the house. Alone in the morgue. It is the eighth sabbath I’ve secretly broken, and at some point, I know I’ll have to confess. But at this moment there are more pressing anxieties, and they are dire enough for a temporary ceasefire. It is strange to find that in our anger we are nearly identical, similarly inclined to say things to each other that can never be unsaid. This energy is still thrumming between us until we turn to look at each other and are both immediately disarmed. Did I mess this whole thing up? she asks. She is afraid I’m going to go off to college and do drugs and sleep with terrible men, and when I tell her that I won’t, neither of us knows it is a lie.
The rumspringa will be somewhat predictable in its verve, an overenthusiastic, slightly boneheaded repurposing of philosophy 101. A smug touting of softcore nihilism and a sudden impulse to shave off my hair, all the carnivorous age-inappropriate men trying to say nice things about my newly bald head. But that night, I’m so certain I will do none of those things. To be irresponsible is to default on the only debt I owe, that in exchange for my mother’s desultory vows, for a rotation of church basements stocked with hard NA cookies, I know better than to flirt with the line between want and need.
When my train departs for campus, this betrayal is already half-formed. The last conversations I had with my father were quotidian and unflattering to us both—a discussion about the state of the microwave, a breathless indulgence in snobbery at my mother’s expense. She wore a purple tracksuit and every piece of her jewelry to a college tour, and when they played Sting’s Fields of Gold during the orientation slideshow, she turned to me and said, this is the one. My father smiled with all his teeth when I told him, and then my heart rose into my throat. I wondered what would happen to them when I left. I asked him if it was possible for him to love his wife. When he was gone a week later, my guilt over whether or not this was his answer was mostly unexpressed.
The wax model of his head is now in my mother’s closet and surprises me each time I go to borrow her shoes. Despite all the proof of impermanence—the flowering of veins underneath my mother’s hand, my father’s performative use of his cane suddenly furtive and earnest—all this time I have been thinking, forever. I have been thinking, always. It doesn’t matter if I know better. To upend an absolute is to stand in the debris of all its newly obsolete rules. You know the planets defer to the sun, but wake up with a sinking feeling that the center of everything is still earth.