Monica Lee Copeland is currently completing her first novel, Working My Way Back to Lil. Enjoy the prologue, “That’s as True as I can Make It” to this bildungsroman centered around a 14-year old girl, Lillian (Lil), grieving the death of her grandfather, Joseph Clements (Pap).
Joseph Montrose Clements (Pap)
Saturday, August 17, 1985
I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land
And left us dreaming how very fair
It needs must be, since he lingers there.
James Whitcomb Riley, “He Is Not Dead”
Are you awake? You can hear the leg rubbing of crickets, their twilight songs a heartbeat long throbbing one after another. You were snoozing as is your custom when the sun starts setting ribbons of orange fabric against the sky. You hold the bowl in your hand. It’s cool. Inside you hear the TV singing, “Come a little closer baby smile for me, I’ve got a close up smile for you…” You wet your lips. Your mouth is parched. You launch the assault of sulfur against wood. A blue flame flickers against the metal playing card case sitting on the armrest. You stoke the pipe’s chamber by pulling air through the stem. Warm. Familiar. Vanilla. Leaning back in the rocker, you lift the case up thinking of how you’ll whoop Eddie in a bit of Bid Whist tonight. Large, hazel eyes are reflected in the metal. When did they become so underscored with sagging flesh; the smattering of freckles swept into folds of skin? There was a time when your eyes turned the heads of female coeds. Hmmm, you think. An old man has worn his fair share of different faces. Your grandbaby likes the old mug though. She has traced the half-moons on your face a dozen times chiding, “Pap, those smiley faces are just happy with what you’re seeing… me.” You pull on the pipe again. There’s a small ache. You pat the left thigh of your faded, green trousers. You tap your boot on the floor.
The screen door opens. Nat lowers one leg on to the porch. It’s bare and still lean. Imagining her knee and thigh, you puff smoke in the air. The pain subsides. She pokes her head out and searches for you. “Sitting in the dark again, Old Man?” She sucks the night in, too. “Ummm, that’s a mighty fine sky. That gal better be on time.” The foot and head slip back inside as snapping turtles to their shells.
Her brown, orthopedic footwear is all wrong. What was it your navy friends used to say? The Bees Knees. And she was, and for you, she still is. You wrap around the image of Natalie’s nurse uniform gleaming bleach white in the sunlight; how it slightly hugged her hips as the flesh-colored pumps set off her shins. Her little, dark cape flapped behind her as she ran toward you, holding the cap to her head. You smile softly. The porch light comes on drowning out the memory. Dimples retreat. You close your eyes and blow more smoke at the mosquitoes. Sounds like war inside: the cleaver pounding flesh. Chop. Chop. You remember: Saturday. It is Saturday… chicken fried steak with potatoes and onion. “When it’s important America turns to CBS News.” You hear the entry music and Morton Dean’s steady voice. Yes, Saturday, August 17, 1985. Chop.
Footsteps crunch across the grass, and then stop. Shadows huddle in whisper. Your eyes swim in the filmy orange darkness. You make out, “Bite me. He’s a total noid.” You recognize the voices, but not the language. Maybe they are play acting. You remember Lil and her friend went to see a movie.
What were you thinking about? You can’t recall. Taters. The smell of onions and fat sizzling in the suppertime skillet sends a pang through your stomach. You hang in the scent of Nat’s cooking like a bee floating in the perfume of bloom. Even with your eyes closed, you can see the Jessamine opening its yellow petals around the veranda’s columns, the fragrance carrying you to your very wedding day in Mama’s garden. Your wife wore a crown of those tiny buds mixed with Wisteria above her veil, a gift made by your Mama’s hands. You owe your green thumb and so much more to Mama. Her delicate, white hands showed you how to carefully pinch and remove suckers at the joint of tomato plants with tenderness, while she patted the back of your impatient boyhood body. Your thought shifts to your grandbaby. How you have handed down to her this bold adoration for flower, sun, moon, bird. “All the extra sun from pruned leaves makes more sugar in the fruit.” Your Mama said this winking at you a wee thing in sailor suit. You’ve repeated the same lines to your grandbaby, Lil, over the garden bed. Knew Lil was a true Clements when at four she picked a tomato off the vine, eating it like an apple. Lord knows you are a sugar loving man! You find sweetness in the bowl of your pipe, sweetness in your marriage bed, and honey in just about everything your granddaughter does and says. In less than an hour, Nat will serve the chicken and steak with a mess of onions, a bit of potato hash, and finely sliced tomatoes just harvested from your garden. You puff smoke salivating at the thought of this meal.
On the lawn, there are muffled giggles. One girl falls down on the grass. “…but Michael J’s totally rad and that car…” You wonder: Who is Michael? You knew a Michael, didn’t you? The juice of potatoes and fowl cooking in that skillet fills your being with “the salt of earth” ― a phrase you and your buddies use for everything good. You suck it in quick as if it was a whiff of cotton candy. The Earth has been a tricky bedfellow, but you’ve had no alternative but to lie with her. One moment she’s handing you your diploma saying “You’ve got the whole world in your hands,” the next she’s whoring you out to the navy, allowing you to save lives of crackers whose spittle you wipe from your cheeks. “Anything else you want to take, Ma’am.” And who’s really the sucker? Your entire family is lying in her belly; the maggots churning flesh into rot, and she’s not done with her demanding. Mother Earth will suck you in entirely before you know it. She don’t give a damn about right, wrong, black, white, or yellow. Your whole life she’s been grabbing at your cock, showing you just how much grit you got in you. Thought you’d escape working in the dirt of falsities like your daddy did. But living is a dirty business, ain’t it? Even the loving? You bear the weight of your kin through the grass. They pull at your ankles through the six feet of earth piled upon ‘em. “Oh, baby, we been waitin’,” cries your mother. “Saved you some space, brother.” And your father’s voice, “Are you worthy of the Savior, son?”
Your skin itches at the thought of all that dirt. Talk about dirty: the memory of your forearms covered in shavings pulls you into an entirely different reverie. You peeled a whole mess of potatoes on duty, the peeler the only scalpel you were allowed to use for a long while.
On the lawn you hear, “Ally, shush it. Don’t wig out. I’m already late.” It’s your baby’s baby talking. She’s a minute from being a woman. You know you won’t be able to watch it all.
“Check me out.” The other string bean is flying through the air. Spry crosses your mind. You too were that invincible, once.
May! Suddenly, there’s your daughter, Lil’s mother, in your mind, wearing pigtails and cobalt broad cloth between you and Natalie. The day of your father’s funeral, you opened the door of the Bonneville for them, extending your hand. Abe scrambled out of the back seat stiff in his first black suit. You patted your breast pocket reassuringly; the eulogy carefully folded therein. That was three decades before your mother’s death when you laid your father to rest.
The brown clodhoppers are right on the other side of the screen door. Your wife is watching but won’t come out. You don’t have to turn around to know she’s peering at her wristwatch through her readers. You want to say, “Turn off the light, hen of a woman” but there’s a sting cutting you deep inside and the words lie fallow on your tongue.
“My watch reads seven fifty-six and forty-four seconds. That’s plenty late.” It’s the hen speaking, gentle yet firm. You think it’s good that she did not mention the porch and streetlights just about to burn bright, then those children would hear real fury.
Why were you, a Harvard man, playing mess boy for a bucket load of sharecroppers who’d rather receive their last rites than have you touch their twisted bodies? A black man’s folly, you danced for acceptance believing those blues with an officers rank could set you free. Following on the heels of Bernard Robinson, you were made an ensign after you got your degree, but they didn’t let you do much until the Golden Thirteen received their glory. A well-educated mess man, a gang runner on shore, anything but a medical man, despite Roosevelt’s order.
You hear your granddaughter speaking again, “I gotta’ go, Ally. See yah at school in a couple weeks.” You don’t have to look up to see Ally, thick about the middle, with long jet hair and oval glasses. She’s the one who laughs at your jokes in little snorts without understanding.
Ally’s “Night, Ma’am,” directed at your wife on the porch, is already distant before you hear Lil bound up the stairs sure-footed.
“Awfully sorry, Nan,” you hear the baby say, before smooching your wife’s cheek. Then there’s a pause. The girl stops short. She needs Nan’s nod of forgiveness before heading to you. “Hey, Saucey, give up some room.” She calls you that because of the pepper in your talk, but there’s no hate.
The war taught you not to count on hate. No, suh. Your Michael, he was that teenage tow-head from Montana. Boy held your hand so hard he wouldn’t let go. Navy could have rowed you across the Atlantic on the tears you tried to hold back when he slipped off, the grip loosening like a necktie after a funeral. Weeping. Yup, you were ashamed to be so sad.
Onery. That’s how your woman tells it. You’ve earned your share of spit. The last of eight your Mama screamed into this world; one of three to live through grammar school; the only one to make it past thirty. True, you watched your brother go up to the big-named school first, shredding your father’s hope of putting one of his boys on the pulpit. Death stole the chance from the previous sons. True, you then went welching from the Good Book yourself. And, you had no Word for Father standing before his flock speechless, the pocketed paper flaming your heart. You remember Deacon Sommes, now the new Reverend, raising his short arm across your back, and with the other hand motioning the choir to stand and sing. “When the shadows appear, and the night draweth near, and the day is past and gone…”
Your father, Montrose II, could write a whole book on dying. What’s that song May used to listen to up in her room “son of a preacher man”… Father’s church was run like a tight ship ushering the colored of the town into heaven by daring them to live upright. Your father was an upright man. Should you and your little band of comrades have told the truth about your brother Fred to his congregation? Will you get to Glory with so much deceit on your soul? Did the day-in-day-out caring for poor sick people who paid you with chickens, car repairs, fresh milk, and eggs make up for those lies? You had Deacon Sommes baptize Abe as if he were your own. Lie. You loved that boy like you loved his father, naming him after the archangel Gabriel as his mother instructed. You hope the sins of the father do not fall on the son. True, you stood up at Fred’s funeral, enraging the whole town on falsities. Sinner. You couldn’t save Sister either and so many others like her. She bled another placenta-coated black boy into the world and died with it. Failure. You scoured their cells, tissue, and bone off of your hands with Providone; the residue turning faint pink as it spiraled down the drain dirty. Mortal. You never cheated on your wife. You paid your taxes. You turned your cheek on nigger and spook. Well, with all the card playing and shots of Jack at Buster’s Bar, you are not going to think of yourself as an angel.
You know that you have not been a perfectly upright man, although you loved like one. You didn’t just open your woman up. You let her seep into your pores, filling you with music. If you had known lovemaking would have been so good, you would have ignored the church’s notion of sinning against your future spouse and got down to the business sooner. Your father was righteous though. He healed with brimstone and the forgiveness of a white-faced Jesus. Your spine’s a bit crooked, yet you must take comfort in the fact that you did indeed heal more than you lost with poultice and stitches. The business of reverends and doctors is not that different. It’s all births and deaths and managing the middle years. The death that hurt you the most was your brother Fred’s; sucked into the dirt with its ants and worms like the countless numbers before him. The birth that caught your breath was Lil. The Great Mother does that, too. Creation: shade trees, birds, butterflies, and angels. Your grandbaby must be one, and she’s still pulling you closer. You’re not done with that one yet. She’s your path to heaven.
Tired. Some Thoughts make you realize that your wrinkled brow is not an accident. The years are in your bones; their arthritic nature preventing you from rounding that summersault on the lawn with Lil and Ally. This is the anatomy of an old man: muscles that rather sit than work; joints that will not part with their rust; and, thoughts that evaporate into sleep, haunting you with unfinished business.
You sigh. Did you doze off again? You don’t have to feel your forehead to know it’s sweaty. There is a warm weight on top of you. When did the Little Bit get into your lap? Lil normally feels so breezy. Her head is lying against your heart.
Lil says, “I can hear your heart beat, Pap.” You want to wrap your arms tight about her, but they feel like empty potato sacks.
“You waiting out here for Eddie?” Her voice is warm, buttered biscuits.
“Umm hehm,” you say. It’s the best you can do. There’s a tightness in your jaw and it’s spreading to your shoulders.
“You should take off your sweater, Pap. You feel hot.” She disentangles herself. “See you at supper.” She lights away, little flower.
The screen door slams dividing the inside from out; the now from the past. You spent so much time fighting death for other people you never put too much deliberation into your own dying.
Fred’s book? Grasping for the playing cards on the side table, you clutch after them as if they were that tattered evidence of deceit. You watch the high joker, the queen of clubs, eights of every type fall, falling to the floor. Where’d you put it? There’s the awful pang again. You know what it is this time. You can vividly remember the description of what is happening in your chest from JJ Conybeare’s, A Textbook of Medicine, presented to you, used but priceless, as a gift from Fred. Did the book discuss the impending sense of doom? A myocardial infarction… How can your heart starve for oxygen when it’s been so full of country air, an old man’s gibberish, and love? Love is life, isn’t it? What’s burning? Maybe it’s the potatoes. You are screaming through a frozen mouth. “Turn off the stove.” How can your heart be starving? It’s YOU, not the potatoes. Your life is burning. You want Nat. “Nat!!!” The woman is always there when you don’t need her. “Nat!!!” No sound. She cannot hear you. How fast are your blood cells dying? It is 1985. Lil was born in ’72 under the sign of Aquarius. That baby wouldn’t remember how proud your Mama was to see the next generation before she transcended to angel. Fred died in ’46 on the same sweaty day that May was born. Your Mama’s loving eyes come to you quick. “Mama!” That’s real grace. Married a woman who made your blood heat up in the spring of 1945; every flower was a bloom in Mother’s garden. You are so close you can feel your Mama’s breathe. The smell of baby oil is on her hands. The navy discharge in ’44 left you feeling crippled until Nat brought out her glue making you stronger than you had ever been and so grateful you forgot the love that came before her, the love of Haddie. Mother is cradling you. Sweet Jesus! A Harvard man in ’32. Your Mama rocks you back and forth. You can hear the rocker squeak along with her singing. You watched your sister, Antoinette, and her baby slip away in 1932 when you couldn’t do nuthun’ about it. Mother kisses your forehead. She twirls her delicate fingers through your stubborn dark brown locks. You give her a toothless smile. Crawled out from within Mama in 1912 on a cold December morning, the 27th: too late to be a Christmas baby and too early for the New Year prize. Dirty with the stains of birth, you squawked before all those helping church women. You couldn’t see a thing, but your greedy mouth knew how to find its way to your mother’s tit. Mama’s soprano voice trembles, “At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand; Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.” 3 – 2 – 1. You sleep.
You did not feel Eddie stroking your arm. You did not witness Nat staring at your wrists flayed out as you hung lack in the rocker. You did not see her strain two fingers close enough to take your pulse. You didn’t see her pick up your pipe and hold it to her bosom.
You wake up. The best of you gets up and walks to the edge of the porch. This is a curious thing. Something feels different. You stand still. You are definably you, but you are suddenly light in your britches. Instinctively, you wonder if everything is working. You examine your hands and wiggle your fingers. With joy, you sass your bottom. Suddenly flexible, your maleness stiffens at the thought. Something internal wants you to turn around, but you are leery. Should you look over your shoulder? Ildeth, Lot’s wife, looked back and history tells of the horror that happened to her: she was buried in all the precipitation from thermal brines upwelling from the Earth. Are you going to do it? It can’t be helped. You look back and see an old cuss lying in the rocker. You do not recognize him as yourself. Although your wife and best buddy are show nuf talking to him as if it was you. What gives? If you are dead, and you’re not sure that you are, then dead it is. Except, you feel like the living. You decide to take a walk, and you walk. Now that’s as true as you can make it.