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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Five Nov-Dec 2023.
Three essays by Gary Fincke.
Near where I had recently begun to teach English at a Western New York high school, a tractor vanished beneath the earth when a farmer drove too early into the onion fields. Curious, I drove twenty miles to stare at a large, green John Deere as it rose from the early May mud, heaved up by pulleys.
One of my home room students, fifteen that spring, had lost an eye in a farm accident nearly seven years earlier. The empty socket had been stitched closed. Her hair always hung across that socket and the nearby scars like a veil. None of the veteran teachers knew whether or not she would eventually receive an artificial eye or plastic surgery, but they all had heard that the girl was piggyback riding her father and lost her hold. The girl, they agreed, had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt because the spring weather, that year, had been warm, the soil supporting the weight of the tractor. One colleague in the faculty lounge said that the father’s black Harvester tractor had flushed birds that startled the girl into losing her balance. He didn’t reveal how he knew that.
That summer, the younger brother of one of my students tumbled under the harrow that trailed what the newspaper described as his father’s red New Holland. Before the service, the older boy looked at the floor, not speaking, when I reached his spot in the receiving line. During the funeral, the minister said, “Remember the nine years of joy that child has brought,” as if the dead boy had been that farmer’s pet. The father rushed from the church, his shoulders so hunched it appeared as if he was being dragged.
In September, the girl with one eye was in my first-period class. For a month, her head always tilted down toward her opened book. She never answered when I called on her. In October, instead of questioning her, I asked her to read aloud a story’s important paragraph. Each week, as fall drifted into winter, she flawlessly read what I asked for, the only times she ever spoke.
In March, the boy whose brother had been killed quit school. In May, while the girl was reading, the school’s fire alarm sounded to begin the mandatory monthly test, and she looked up so suddenly that her hair parted, exposing her damaged eye. I was the only one facing her. For once, she did not bow her head.
After school, I drove into the country, choosing back roads with little traffic until I passed an expanse of what would soon become onion fields where a deep-blue or black tractor sat a dozen rows deep. I could not identify its make, but I could clearly see that the farmer was crouched beside the tractor, facing away from it, his eyes fixed on the plowed earth between the road and where he squatted. As if he was lost in thought. As if he felt ghost-like, and was waiting to re-enter his body.
Before Sunday School ended, my friend and I were led aside by his mother. “It’s going to take some time to make you two become African boys,” she said. “Ready?”
She laid a towel around our shoulders. “Hold those tight,” she said. “Now close your eyes and keep them closed until I say ‘Open.’” Then she went to work, carefully darkening our faces, applying a deep shade of brown to our foreheads, cheeks, and chins. “There,” she said at last. “And don’t touch your face or you’ll make a mess.”
The minister’s wife had written a play for Children’s Day that featured grade-school kids from seven countries. Some mothers had sewn costumes. There were Chinese girls–“Orientals,” she called them–who got to wear wore long, slinky dresses. A pair of boys became Germans by wearing lederhosen. The two smallest boys wore sombreros to be Mexican. My friend and I were simply “from Africa.” None of the other children, not even the two girls pretending to be from China, were different by color. Unlike the other children, we wore our regular clothes. Our costumes were our faces. I felt chosen.
My friend and I had speaking parts, but only in a chorus that said in a ragged unison, “We are the children of the world, all of us watched over by God and blessed by Jesus.” The dialogue, all of which I’ve forgotten, was carried on by boys and girls who were in grades three through five. A few flashbulbs went off during the performance. Even though there was the Doxology and the Recessional hymn left to sing, there was applause after that chancel play. It was 1951, mid-June. I was less than three months from beginning first grade.
In truth, neither my friend nor I had any sense of what we were becoming except African boys. Not African-American, a phrase that was unheard of. Not boys like the ones who lived only a mile or two from where we stood, across the borough line that we had no idea was an invisible wall constructed by real estate agents and banks that were encouraged to do so by some members of our church and even a few of our relatives.
My aunt, afterward, said, “Don’t you look cute. Like a little pickaninny.”
“Like a little Al Jolson,” my uncle said, and he sang a few lines of “My Mammy” while he described how Jolson, his face darkened more deeply than mine had been, got down on one knee and pleaded for a chance to relive the past. It was as if my friend and I had worn white shirts for a sharper contrast rather than wearing those shirts only because we did every Sunday, no exceptions.
My mother said, “Stepin’ Fetchit,” a character she’d seen years ago in a movie and called me a few times when I reacted slowly to requests or took too long getting dressed. I’d never asked about the movie, but the combination of the name and her tone identified who I appeared to be, lazy and simple-minded, not an ordinary boy from Africa.
At last, my mother waited to clean me up while my father walked my older sister, a third-grader who’d memorized and recited a dozen lines of dialogue, to the three, upstairs rooms we rented on the same block where the church was located just outside of Pittsburgh. “I hope you’re never in a minstrel show like your Uncle Jerry, not while you’re under my roof,” she said. “This here is some terrible mess.”
I knew what a minstrel show was. I’d sat through one in the church basement the winter before. Uncle Jerry had a part in it — Brother Bones. A family friend had played Mr. Interlocutor, whose job it was to encourage Uncle Jerry and three other men with painted faces to keep talking in a way that made people laugh.
People I’d never seen in church attended, so the basement was crowded with bodies seated on folding chairs. For a while, Uncle Jerry and the rest of the men sang songs like “Swanee River” and even “My Mammy.” I had been restless, whatever was funny not reaching me at age five, attending because my parents supported the church and paying for a babysitter was unthinkable.
But what I knew, even then, was that the church members who wore blackface that night were meant to be American men, not African ones. Men from the South, a place I’d never been. Where neither of my parents had ever been as well. The farthest south I’d ever traveled was a park just over the Pennsylvania border in West Virginia.
My mother, that afternoon, was mostly complaining because I’d touched my face a few times, something that was obvious because I’d smeared my fingers on the cuffs of my white shirt. “Whose bright idea was this,” she muttered. “This isn’t that charcoal the men use. It better all wash out or there will be hell to pay.”
My Daughter, Talking about Boys who Drove Her
My daughter, talking about boys who drove her in cars during high school and college, mentions the one who sported the current year’s demo from his father’s dealership, the license plate announcing its short con like a badly made phony ID. Together, we laugh now, but that amusement was not shared the year she turned fourteen, that boy a senior who idled near the end of the driveway as if she was stealing something worth waiting for from our house.
Not laughing, she mentions the boy who loved art as much as she did, drawing and painting with her after school like a co-curricular teammate. The one who, before graduation, died from natural causes a year after failing the blood test for leukemia.
She gives herself up to that list, moving to the one, insulin dependent, who drank himself into a coma through which she anxiously waited. The one who recovered and starred in several redundant sequels.
The one who consoled her when her cat hung itself from our deck. The one who listened to her cry until he declared there was a limit of grief-time for a cat, changing the subject to his upcoming internship, then refused to look at the cat’s grave after I buried it.
The one who called from the distant city of late-night melancholy, singing his songs about her that featured a mixture of regret and desire. He is the one, she says, who still texts sporadically, mournful messages become so brief they seemed to have passed through the atmosphere of years like the residue of meteors.
My daughter, four years past forty, now swells with the child of her second husband, a man so stable his story is told in silence. His absence, today, is caused by work. He will arrive, like always, shortly after his shift is finished. He will not ask for a beer.
My daughter watches her girls drift to the shallow end to check their phones, making room, she says, for an update on the boy who sped her, senior year, to a Friday movie as if the theater were an emergency room, then called someone else the following week and drove that classmate into a rollover off a country road, the trauma enough to kill her.
There’s news, she says, a reason for bringing him up at poolside a quarter of a century later. That driver has been discovered dead, cause unknown. She looks at her watch as if there are only seconds left to finish this story. Not anywhere near here, she says. Not even in the United States. In a country where English is seldom spoken or even carried through customs like a valuable history to be declared.
© Gary Fincke
Gary Fincke’s new essay collection The Mayan Syndrome was published by Madhat Press in October. Its lead essay “After the Three-Moon Era,” was reprinted in Best American Essays 2020. His previous collection The Darkness Call won the Robert C. Jones Prize (Pleaides Press, 2018).