Election 2016: A Lyric Essay


*The Spatial Election*

More than anything, this election seemed to be about space. A black man occupied the White House for two terms, and now a white woman has a serious chance of doing the same. Should it be surprising that The Donald won the Republican nomination? If a Negro or a Broad can rule the empire, surely a Wealthy White Man by virtue of his colonial legacy can too—personal background be damned. The rebellion might have achieved a minor progressive parade, but now The Empire Strikes Back. With no actual applicable experience to cite for his fifty-state job interview, Trump made it about space. The Oval Office is obviously too easy to obtain, and this corruption bores into every facet of the American Experience. It’s too easy for Mexicans to enter our climate-changed deserts, and so we need a goddamn wall to uppercut them back. It’s too easy for Syrian refugees to wait two years as they toss tarnished souls into a bureaucratic penny fountain, and so we need to outlaw Islam just to be safe. A matronly diplomat is within reach of Pennsylvania Avenue? She needs to be relocated to a prison with other nasty women. Law & Order, Law & Order, Law & Order. We are a country without laws if a white man’s ass is not on the throne. This order has been disrupted by these imposters, these Others.

Donald never led in general election polls, and so he countered published statistics with observations of space. Look at this rally! Look at all these people! Look at how much space is occupied when I come to your town. Obviously this means peer-reviewed, published information must be wrong. The economy is good? I say it’s bad and watch the trash people flock. A non-white participant protests my crude language? Throw ’em out! Punch ’em! Remove ’em! Look at how a cultural critic has been ejected from my space, by virtue of my finger jabbing in their direction! I command this space for you, my frothing mass, my white bread yeast. The restoration of space has begun!

Women from his past began to come forward to share their stories of how Trump invaded their space. Beauty contestants recalled how he’d barge into their dressing rooms unannounced, reporters and associates were fondled without consent, and his magpie lips stole off-camera kisses. Trump responded with charges that the women were not attractive and, therefore, held space that was not valuable enough for him to occupy. He only invades the best space. The most luxurious space.

The second debate became the space apex. Trump’s campaign was spiraling down a long hollow shaft, à la the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, and so came the space attack. He invited Slick Willy’s former victims for a balcony cameo to unsettle the wife who was cheated on. Instead of allowing Hillary to command the floor during her answers, he loomed over her as much as he could get away with. This crone might be allowed on stage, but I will relinquish only so much of it. The Trump surrogates all cheered after about how “rattled” she seemed and that she was on the “defensive.” He might lose and lose badly, but he stole as much space as he could in the election’s final moments.


Over the spring of 2016 I played the game Persona 4. I had never played any of the Persona games previously, and, in fact, my love of Role Playing Games has dwindled a bit as I’ve come into my own as an adult. Role Playing Games are the ultimate adventure fantasy for young adults, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that protagonists are almost always men in their early adolescence.

In Persona 4, you play a young man from Tokyo who moves to the suburbs to live with his uncle and young cousin. The main storyline of the game involves a series of unsolved murders that occupy your detective uncle late into the night. You discover that someone is kidnapping the town’s denizens and imprisoning them inside a television world. You and your new friends can enter this television world and summon demons to destroy surreal monsters, making the game feel like an interactive Haruki Murakami novel.

You eventually discover that Mitsuo, an awkward, socially rejected transfer student has taken part in the murder spree. He disappears into the television world and when you confront him, he turns out to be a levitating infant hiding inside a skyscraper-sized knight. He says in a broken vocoder monotone, “I am…a shadow…Come…I’ll end your emptiness.” When he attacks your party, you see yourself from his perspective as he selects different options from a video game menu. He assumes that he is doing you a favor by destroying you because he is nothing more than a hollow baby raging against a culture that rejects him and, therefore, assumes everyone must feel the same way. If you are able to demolish his knight’s outer shell, he quickly recites gibberish language to conjure its return, rather than communicate with you directly.

Persona 4 thus critiques the traditional Role Playing Game tropes of using the genre to project a power fantasy. This need comes from feeling like an entitled infant as young men begin constructing their own masculinity. These games force you to use your maturing power to assist the weak and save humanity from its darker impulses, teaching young men that power requires a structural outlet if it’s to be wielded correctly.

The supernatural evil in Persona 4 is a desire to lash out indiscriminately at a culture that dares downplay your strength, and the game ultimately makes the argument that resentful men would end the planet if they could. The character of Mitsuo also demonstrates that a root cause for craving news coverage is a total lack of empathy for actual human beings. It’s also got a toe-tapping, J-Pop soundtrack.


Nothing depresses me more than a great singer in a karaoke bar. Karaoke is for below-average vocalists belting out nostalgia hits. But when a customer perfectly replicates Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey in some drafty dive, I just feel sad. Here is someone with a legitimate gift, and the only time that gift gets exercised is on Saturday nights between rounds of Jack. Why can’t the wealthiest empire in human history do more with its talented citizens? I’m more impressed with music than capital markets.

One Christmas at Shenanigans in Brooklyn, a non-regular took the microphone and requested Luciano Pavarotti. What came forth through the crackling speakers was the most powerful voice I’d ever heard. All conversations disintegrated as he rattled old-fashioned glasses with the finale of “O Sole Mio.” The bartenders held their phones aloft so that their wives could experience his human spirit reverberate. The applause went on for minutes. He thanked everyone and said he performs at the Met and desired a night of fun.

I had to follow him. Luckily, it was the pub singalong favorite of “Fairytale of New York.” I can’t sing particularly well, but I do come from a long line of Scottish drinkers, so I can do a mean Shane MacGowan. The Met Singer clapped and whistled as I slurred the opening bars.

I’ve always thought of “Fairytale of New York” as one of our more patriotic songs. It describes the wonder of the American Christmas: the season when a little too much neighborly booze and reconciliation is welcome. It only makes sense that it’s scheduled for a month after elections.

*The Secret of the Ooze*

The day my sister got married was the only day I didn’t have anxiety over this election. It took place in our hometown of Auburn, New York, a colossal paradox for a city of only thirty thousand. Home of William H. Seward, abolitionist. Home of Harriet Tubman, Underground Railroad Captain and Twenty-Dollar Bill Cover Girl. Home of Auburn Correctional Facility AKA Auburn Prison AKA Auburn Penal Colony. You see the cognitive dissonance embedded in the city’s neural pathways. Auburn’s brain is a dark storm of crows striking lifeless trees in feathery Vs throughout its black winters—a democratic Siberia.

My neighborhood growing up was filled with nobodies going nowhere good. There was the drug dealer across the street, the Baptist family that locked their daughters indoors during Halloween, and a whole lot of screaming domestic disputes fueled by the local brewery. Most people either worked for the prison or were incarcerated by it.

As I rose through the ranks of academia, the more my origin story made little sense to me, and, therefore, I wouldn’t acknowledge it. My writing gets published by Ivy League Universities! I’ve been invited to give readings at literature conferences! Facts like these made me want to workshop my past. “I really like how this speaker is driven and goal-oriented, but does he have to come from an upstate prison town where overdoses are prevalent? Neither of his parents is creative, so where does the writing gene come from? That’s not fully explained. Why not an artistic family from Chelsea? That seems more consistent with how the story unfolds.”

In Ninja Turtles II, Donatello discovers that they mutated into anthropomorphic reptiles from an ecological disaster and cover-up by a company called Techno Global Research Industries. It’s by far the most interesting part of an otherwise stupid movie. While other superheroes have elaborate origin stories that conveniently require feature-length films to narrate, the Ninja Turtles were simply created from capitalism’s exploitation of the natural world. The side effects of the company’s malfeasance were amazing physical specimens who lived in sewers and honed their skills to better a world that never wished them to surface. Although the film was panned for its lukewarm action and Vanilla Ice lyrics, their genesis gave hope to all the misfits out there. Unregulated capitalism created these weirdos and then did nothing to help them succeed, but, through sheer determination, the Ninja Turtles were able to succeed on their own terms. If a mutant sewer turtle can become a grandmaster in martial arts, surely a white trash kid can become a grandmaster in language.

*I Heart Huckabees*

I love the way Mike Huckabee’s jowls slide left to right when he speaks like a fleshy typewriter scripting bullshit. I love the way he considers himself a Christian and supports an honorable man of the cloth such as Donald J. Trump. I love how he compares Hillary Clinton to Jaws. I love how sharks are always the villains in movies when the human characters go out to sea. If anything, Mike Huckabee should support Jaws as he stands his ground against an alien assault.

I also love his daughter Sarah. When she speaks, I love that it isn’t just the usual bullshit like her father. It’s the terrifying chemical manure that infects the tributaries and waterfalls that surround her home state of Satan’s drab crater.

I love how when her daughters ask her what she does for a living, she says, “What does Proverbs 6:16 say again, girls?” Then to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus,” her darling offspring answer in song. “There are six things that the Lord dislikes, / seven that are abomination / to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, / and hands that shed innocent blood, / a heart that devises wicked plans, / feet that make haste to run / to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, / and one who sows discord among brothers.”

That’s right, girls! Mommy is responsible for dropping baby Jesus. Maybe someday, you’ll defy his guidelines for redemption! Money Changers always need Spin Doctors to hypnotize the flock! That’s what the Gospel writes in holy fine print!

*The Goldberg Myth*

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, there was a popular wrestler named Bill Goldberg. He wasn’t much of a wrestler, as his matches rarely lasted for more than a minute. But the major component of the Goldberg act was his entrance. His music consisted of a martial drum pattern while a menacing melody ricocheted between beats. Then the chants began. “Goooooooold-berg!” The audience would repeat this chant for several minutes before he even came out to the arena. For several minutes it was only drums, melody, chants. This spectacle created a rhythmic, hypnotic sound that made it seem as if tens of thousands of young men could conjure a demon if only they were loud enough, a kind of rock concert Bloody Mary.

The audience’s patience was then rewarded with the monster Goldberg. At six feet four and a muscular two ninety, liquid dripping from shredded abdominals, Goldberg looked like a gladiator surfaced from the depths of Styx. Flanked by a security escort on all sides, the message was clear: this is no mere athlete, but a lethal predator who requires handling by the State until released into the safe confines of a wrestling ring. The State knew that inequalities exist, and this was its answer to satiate proletariat bloodlust.

A tornado of fireworks and pyrotechnics was then released from the ground, and Goldberg slipped within its curtain of lightning. As he withstood the fury of pyro, it gave a visual effect of buzz saws trimming his goatee, only to be repelled from his face as loose sparks. Working-class machines, which require a novella of safety guidelines on the factory floor, can only rattle and skip across Goldberg’s chiseled jaw.

When the pyro subsided, there stood Goldberg, unfazed. When the next set of drums looped around, he would then exhale the pyro exhaust like a hero of draconic lineage. The chants now exploded into a monster truck rally. The Gladiator’s entrance was nearly complete, and the crowd would not allow it to fall short now. As the noise rumbled the cameras, Goldberg roared, shadowboxed, and snorted before stepping through the ropes. The music ended, but the chants continued. Sixty seconds later, his opponent was extinguished, so the music returned, and the chants grew louder until Goldberg finally marched into the backstage area with another recorded win.

The company who employed Goldberg, World Championship Wrestling, did not have any fundamental insights into the character and, therefore, ruined The Myth beyond repair. The audience didn’t care that he knew maybe five moves or that he was incapable of a technical clinic. Goldberg represented an American masculinity lost in the era of global trade. He never lost. He rarely spoke. His entire act was the entrance and the destruction. You witnessed the twilight of his victims’ lives: their value and meaning reduced to a lifeless tackling dummy.

Goldberg beat up mostly nobodies. But that was the whole point. His opponents represented for the audience all of their real world frustrations—dead-end jobs, layoffs, corporate bankers, declining health benefits, unpaid loans. If we all link our voices together in the name of Goldberg, the supernatural realm will have no choice but to offer up The Myth to avenge economic forces that cannot be corralled.

Then Goldberg lost. He lost by getting tased. Not only was the Goldberg Myth exposed as illusion, but also by a weapon of the State. The Goldberg Myth immediately took on a new meaning: even otherworldly monsters cannot survive the State’s power. He had been allowed to disrupt the system for too long and needed to be humbled into subservience. Soon after, people began booing Goldberg. His very presence reminded them of their own mortality and economic position. Today, the Goldberg chant is one of mockery by wrestling fans. It is directed at combatants who are perceived as puppets of upper management. The Goldberg Myth will never be duplicated, but those seeking votes can still replicate its intoxicating power.

*And When You’re a Star, They Let You Do It*

Like put politicians on blast. I’ll origami a thesaurus scimitar and swipe away white spots from Donald’s tangerine smears, filet his face so he resembles Freddie Kruger after several horror dreams. This isn’t the fight you wanted, old man, but you’re staring down the Poetry Sith Lord fused with Sayian DNA, and there you sit, sad, blowing on your alphabet soup. Got nothing to say? I just Force Lightning’d your toupee with sentences conducted by my fingertips. Fine. Tag in Kellyanne. I was just getting warmed up anyway. Come at me with your Jersey nonsense, free shot at the chin. Oops, wiffed again. Well, allow me to counterstrike the best I can by summoning his assault victims reborn as sorceresses, led by Summer Zervos. They cast Ballot Upheaval, zooming Don & Con, lips first, to Polaris, smooching electrical skin before its detonation.

*The Revenge of the Sith*

Let me make something clear: if you voted for Donald J. Trump, I will never forgive you. Politicians always speak of forgiving rhetoric after elections conclude. We are all Americans. We need to come together to face mutual challenges. We have more in common than we think. Yeah, fuck that. Voting for Trump means you desire to smash democracy into a thousand orange Tic Tacs. Garry Wills described the act of voting for Trump as “acting alone through him.” Well, I’m here to grant your wish. You are now alone and, statistically, near death. Sayonara.

I want to shred the whiteness from my skin. I want nothing to do with an America who would rather elect a sexist reality star than the world’s most qualified woman. I find myself at a crossroads. I’ve always hated Yoda because I thought he was a coward and a loser for what he did in Episode III (Revenge of the Sith). An illiterate galaxy elects the Emperor, and Yoda exiles himself to some swamp planet to dick around until Luke arrives twenty years later. I now understand him a bit more. This country’s Force Users are now the hunted. The Republican Party swept all three branches of government by the uneducated garbage that is strewn about the empire’s hinterlands. What incentive does the GOP have to expand education now?

I definitely will not move to another country, but now, my brain begins its self-imposed Yoda Exile from all forms of news and social media. I will only study scholarship and poetry for the time being. An orange shadow has fallen upon our nation’s rainbow coalition. But there will be a new hope.

As the election returns came in that November Night, I sobbed uncontrollably in frenetic heaves. How could I face my female students the next day? How can I promise them a bright future if they follow the rules but say nothing when the rules get violated? I had an afternoon appointment with my creative writing honors student, and I began to cry again. That’s when I realized that even if my brain will enter the Yoda Exile, my heart remains here, fighting.

The first academic award I ever received was in preschool for “Most Caring.” It’s a distinction that I’ve spent the rest of my life running away from because I feared it interfered with my natural ambition. This left me conflicted while watching Star Wars because although I admired the wisdom and thoughtfulness of Obi-Wan Kenobi, it’s the Dark Side Users whom I always felt more of an affinity for. Rather than conform to the Jedi Order’s institutionalized version of a Force User, the Sith mold the Force for their own purposes. While the Jedi live and work in a lush, fragrant campus, the Sith often emerge from the galaxy’s shadow lands, obsessed with acquiring the power they were denied from birth. As I read and read and read, I felt the knowledge flow from my brain down to my hands, tingling my fingertips, twitching for an academic battle. Reading became an addiction because of the dark energy it supplied my ego.

I am back into the light. The ultimate privilege of teaching isn’t having summers off (although I do enjoy that), but knowing my students will outlive me. Sure, my writing will also outlive me, and maybe someone will read one of my poems after I move on from this world, but it’s my former students who make this world a better place to inhabit. During the meeting with my creative writing student, I realized that my true power is the ability to foster empathetic writers and thinkers. Her rough draft featured great insights into the human condition, and, like many of my students, she is a much more sophisticated thinker than I was at her age. My Most Caring Heart has been awakened to shield my female and minority students from the ugliness creeping into American political life so that they can cultivate their gifts in peace. It’s through them that I will help save this country. Head, Heart: let’s get to work.


The Care and Keeping of Other People’s Pets

In the summer of 1977 in the small southern Georgia town of Valdosta, my mother stole the neighbor’s dog. I don’t remember much of Valdosta: wet, red clay dirt, snakes in the garden, everything green, everything humid, everything on the edge of rotting. Even voices had a sweet rind of decay. Years after we moved back north, I found a cassette recording my mother made of me counting. My “two” rhymed with “chew.” My “three” and “eight” lilted and stretched into two syllables. “Ten” could be confused for “tan.” By the time I discovered the tape, I no longer had an accent, and that recorded voice revealed a separate existence that was strange and gone.

My mother, Erika, also had an accent, but she didn’t lose it. Born in Hungary, she was ten when she came to the United States with her parents and sister. She was functionally deaf in one ear as the result of an accident with a sharp pencil. The hearing loss was never diagnosed, and when Erika had trouble learning English, her American teachers thought she was slow and put her in remedial classes. The deafness was eventually detected, and she was fitted for a hearing aid, but the mislabeling had an impact. To this day, she’ll be damned if she lets anyone call her stupid. But she never lost her Hungarian accent. Never lost the identifier that marked her as foreign.

As a child, I didn’t know my mother had an accent. My mother’s voice was my origin of sound. I still don’t hear the accent unless I listen hard. But in the 1970s in the deep south, in a city nine miles south of Moody Air Force Base, my mother’s accent defined her. She was a stranger, seen and treated as an “other,” often with perceptible distaste, something she felt acutely.

My father, a CPA who worked for ITT Corporation, was raised in upstate New York by an Italian-American father who worked for the railroad and an Irish-American mother who spent her days herding seven children. While labeled a Yankee, he was, at least, American. His presence served as a social bridge in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t around much, and when Erika went to the grocery store or hauled two kids to the public library, she was on her own in a hostile territory that, through southern charm and expert dissembling, pretended it wasn’t hostile.

I didn’t know or sense any of this as a child. It was only when I was a teenager, loading the dishwasher in the house my parents bought when we returned to New York, that my mother revealed what her years in Georgia were like. I don’t recall what we were talking about when something I said opened up a wound. She told me about the slights and snubs in Georgia that rubbed her so regularly they formed a callous that protected and numbed her.

“I was alone except for you and your brother. You two were all I had,” she said.

The confession made me uncomfortable. I turned back to the dishes and my mother left the room. I hadn’t known, up to that point, that my mother could be hurt. Of everything that she was, of every quality she embodied, I knew my mother primarily—often solely—as strong. I thought she could only be angered.


The neighbor’s dog was a toy poodle named Suzy. She was alternately cared for and neglected by the Studdards, who had a son named Dean whom my brother Mark and I played with occasionally. I don’t remember much about Dean except that I had a vague understanding that he could be mean, and once, he hit me on the head with a stick when I was climbing up to the tree house. I fell and landed hard. My father came out, and there was yelling. I think my mother tried to limit the amount of time we spent with him, especially after Dean and I were discovered half-undressed beneath the Studdards’ trampoline. I tried to find Dean Studdard on the internet. There are two living in Georgia—both in Valdosta.

The Studdards’ house was directly behind ours, backyards adjacent, no fence. In addition to Suzy, they had a large, aging mutt they didn’t let inside. I would creep to the back of their house to fill an old trough beneath a spigot that served as his water bowl. I often found it near empty and would fill it as quietly as I could. I thought I’d get in trouble if someone spotted me.

My mother loved Suzy. She loved all animals, though we didn’t have any pets in Georgia, probably because of our transience. We had moved from New York to Houston to Memphis to Valdosta in a little under two years following my father’s job. Eventually, after we left Georgia and landed in New Jersey, my mother adopted a dog named Mooch and a cat named Choo-Choo, but in our house on Sherwood Drive just a few miles north of the Florida border, she had only Mark and me, creatures who required a more complex and demanding affection.

Despite our lack of pets, my mom stocked Gaines Burgers in our kitchen pantry, moisturized dog food shaped like hamburgers and made, as the box claimed, “with real meat!” I loved the feel of them—soft and mushy beneath the cellophane. My mother used the dog food to lure Suzy to our back door, and I would help her crumble half a burger into a little bowl. Like my act of filling the water trough, I knew what we were doing was good, but there was something in my mother’s manner that made me understand that it was also something illicit.

“They don’t feed her enough,” my mother would tell me as she put the bowl on the steps leading up to the back door. And Suzy, who had the run of both backyards, would make her way over and take delicate little bites. Afterward, Suzy would follow us into the house where she jumped onto the sofa and napped as my mother petted her. A little while later, she’d jump down and head back to the Studdards.

Suzy began to follow my mom around the yard, then into the house and around the kitchen as she prepared meals, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone, a long twisted cord giving her access to the stove, refrigerator and counter. The click-click-click of Suzy’s nails on the kitchen linoleum became the soundtrack of quiet afternoons in an air-conditioned house shuttered and dark against the heat. I was confused and grew to think that Suzy was our dog, and my mother did little to clear up my confusion. The Studdards own Suzy, she’d tell me, but we take care of her, and she loves us more.

Eventually, Suzy started following Erika around the neighborhood. One afternoon, my mother took me across the street on a rare visit with a neighbor. She served us iced tea at a table next to a large, above-ground pool that I found incredibly luxurious. We were barely settled when Suzy came around the corner of the house. The neighbor’s dog, large and brutish, lunged and caught Suzy in its jaws, shaking her like a toy then flinging her across the yard. Suzy lay where she landed, not moving, bent and bloody.

My mother called the Studdards from the veterinarian’s office, told them what happened, told them how much it would cost to get Suzy fixed up. The Studdards refused to pay, telling my mom it was her fault, telling her to let the dog die. After she hung up with the Studdards, my mother called my father at the office. He said no. Hell, no, we’re not paying $300 for the neighbor’s dog. My mom cried. She hung up. Then my dad called her back at the vet’s office. He said okay. Go ahead. Get the damn surgery.

My mother loves to tell this story. She loves to talk about how my father pretended to hate animals but was really a softie. She credits him with a change of heart tied to his conscience. But I know my father was not a softie. He was a large, difficult man with a temper and whose rage was often terrifying. My mother just always got what she wanted. She still does.


A few years back, before my brother got divorced, his then wife called me in exasperation.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Your brother is a grown-ass adult man, and he can’t make a single decision without talking to your mama first and getting her blessing. He has got to cut the apron strings.”

It’s funny to think about it. How my mother rules my brother. She’s a tiny woman—five feet, two inches and my brother is a huge, ball-busting, tough guy. Barrel-chested and muscular, he worked as a bouncer through college. He shoots guns. He can scare most people without trying too hard. And my mother can cripple him with a disapproving look. She owns him. There was very little comfort I could offer my sister-in-law because my mother owns me, too. And I suspect, back in 1976 when Suzy was mauled by the neighbor’s dog and wasn’t going to live without emergency surgery, my mother owned my father, as well.

I have always been in awe of my mother’s strength. In a certain light, it could be perceived as hard-headed stubbornness and self-righteousness. In a different light, her strength is born from a clear sense of justice and a refusal to be shamed. I suspect it is a mix of both. In 2007, when Mark and I were what passes for adults, my mother was working for the State of New York in a midlevel government job surrounded by people who watched TV at their desks. She forwarded a viral email to a group of coworkers. It contained a collection of cartoons, one of which featured a snowman with a carrot erection next to a snowwoman with large snowballs for breasts. There was probably a risqué quip beneath it. When my mom forwarded the message, she cut off the tail that showed the string of state employees who received it and forwarded it on before her.

One of her coworkers reported Erika for sexual harassment. I feel like I need to write that again. My 62-year-old mother was accused of sexual harassment. She was called into Human Resources (HR) with her supervisor and union representative. She was reprimanded and given an agreement that outlined disciplinary actions: a loss of two weeks’ vacation, probation, and a letter in her permanent file. Her supervisor and union representative counseled her to sign it. She refused and explained that she merely forwarded a stupid email that had been forwarded to her. HR asked her for the name of the person who sent it to her. She refused to name names. They explained that there was nothing else they could do. Erika still refused to sign the paper and asked for a hearing. Everyone left the room.

A few days later, her union representative called her and said that HR has decided to change the disciplinary action: one week of lost vacation instead of two. The representative urged her to accept the deal. Erika refused. She demanded a hearing. A few more days passed, and they offered a new deal: no vacation loss and a letter in her file. Still, Erika said no. Eventually, the case was dismissed with no action taken. My mother had waited them out and worn them down.

I often thought about how I would have responded, the acute shame of being accused, the stacked power differential of the people in the room, the risk of losing my job. Throughout the negotiations, my mom would laugh as she recounted the latest developments, but I was scandalized. Embarrassed. I thought her disregard for consequences was short-sighted. At the same time, I liked to think I would have fought it just as she did, would have advocated for myself, would have loudly proclaimed the ridiculousness of the situation and made a stink. Or maybe I would have been just as successful in my own way, using diplomacy and reason, appeasing the offended without acknowledging the offense. But even then I knew better. In many ways, I was not my mother’s daughter. I was meek. I rolled over. I would not have fared well.


When my mother brought Suzy back from the veterinarian, the dog had a cast around her entire torso. I was delighted by the cast, the contrast between the hard, cool shell of the plaster and Suzy’s warm, wriggly body inside it. Suzy stayed with us, and my mother nursed her, made a little bed for her that she carried from room to room, so Suzy wouldn’t be alone. Nobody heard from the Studdards.

Suzy recovered quickly and was soon up and about, carefully making her way down the back patio steps to sniff around the backyard as my mother gardened. The cast was removed after a few weeks, along with the stitches. My mom brought Suzy home, and we fed her Gaines Burgers as she pranced in and out of the kitchen, jumping on and off the couch in pleasure. Later that day, we heard a knock at the back door. Dean Studdard stood there, his face set in a grimace.

“We want our dog back,” he said.

“You tell your parents that they can have Suzy back when they pay me for the vet bills,” my mom answered.

Dean glared and turned away, and we watched him walk across the backyards to his house. Shortly after, the phone rang, and my mom launched into a heated exchange with Dean’s mom who slung xenophobic slurs and threats involving the police. My mom called my dad. He talked about the neighborhood, not wanting to make enemies, not wanting to involve law enforcement, especially when, he suspected, we wouldn’t win.

“Give the dog back,” he said. “She’s not our dog.”

My mom gave Suzy back.


A few months later, my dad was transferred to New Jersey. My parents flew north to look at houses, and my grandmother flew south to watch Mark and me. My dad stayed north while my mother returned to pack up the house and to send my grandmother back home. In the last few days of boxes and moving vans and goodbyes, the Studdards called my mom to see if she had Suzy. The dog was missing. My mom said no and offered to look, saying with wicked pleasure that Suzy may be more likely to come if she heard my mom calling. We all wandered the neighborhood for hours calling for Suzy. No one could find her. Mark and I worried that she had gotten attacked by a large dog or hit by a car or that she would return to find our house empty and that we left without saying goodbye. Our mother told us there wasn’t much else she could do.

We left Georgia a few days later. My father flew back and we all drove north to my grandparents’ house in New York where my brother and I would stay until the new house was ready. It was a 20-hour drive and we were all hot, grumpy, hungry and tired when we arrived. My brother and I ran through the mudroom, burst through the kitchen door, and were astounded to see Suzy prancing around my grandmother’s feet in excitement.

“Suzy!” we shouted.

“Not Suzy,” my mother said, following us. “Susie.”

We looked at her in confusion.

“Grandma loved Suzy so much, she decided to get a toy poodle that looked just like her,” my mother explained. “And she named her ‘Susie,’ which is Hungarian for ‘Suzy.’”

We looked from my mother’s face to my grandmother’s and back to my mother’s. They both nodded.

“Susie!” we cried.

“Her nails are blue!” I shouted. “They match her ribbon!”

“I took her to the dog groomer,” Grandma said.

Mark and I understood completely. We thought Suzy was great, but Susie was ours, and no one was going to take her away.


It wasn’t until I was a teenager and both my father and Susie had long since died that I realized that Susie and Suzy were the same dog. I don’t remember what prompted the connection, but when I asked my mom, she laughed and said, “Of course! I wasn’t going to leave Suzy behind. She would have died.”

“But how did you do it,” I asked.

“Oh, it was a pain in the ass. We shipped her by plane to New York. It was really expensive. Your father almost had a stroke. We had to buy the crate, pay special fees. I worked it all out with your grandmother in advance. She picked her up at the airport in Albany.”

“So when Suzy was missing and we were all looking for her, you knew she was on a plane to New York?”

“Oh, by that time, I think she was already in New York.” She laughed again and pulled impish faces at the memory.

“Mom, you stole a dog,” I said.

“I did!” She leaned back and laughed. “But she was our dog. We loved her. She loved us. Love made her ours.”


I am still, in many ways, not my mother’s daughter. I am still meek. I often do not get my way, and almost as often don’t mind. I usually think of my pliancy as a good quality, but as an old friend once told me, there’s a dark side to every mountain. But the dark side is hard to see.

Last year, I found myself struggling in my job after a new executive director took over. In my first job review with her, she failed me in every category. Two of the categories I had “substantially failed.” The level-headed part of my brain knew this was ludicrous. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a smidge of work ethic couldn’t fail everything. I knew something was up. I got angry. Like my mother, I refused to sign the review. And then I crumpled.

The executive director emailed me a note saying that I should submit a detailed outline describing the actions I would take to meet all expectations. She wrote as if to an incompetent idiot. The next day, I diligently toiled on a work plan to address my inadequacies and shortcomings. I addressed my communication problems that included things like “too many sentences.” I acknowledged my inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and owned it all. It was a humiliating process. I saved the document and planned to send it on Monday. Then I left for the weekend.

I spent two days crying randomly in public places. The job wasn’t ideal, but it was a work-from-home position with flexible hours, and I was a one-parent household struggling to be the type of mother I thought I should be. I was terrified of losing my job, couldn’t imagine anyone else hiring me. I couldn’t fathom how I failed so spectacularly. I didn’t know what to do.

When I sat back down at my desk on Monday and opened up the document, I thought about my mother. Her stubbornness that was sometimes brave, sometimes foolish. Her anger that was sometimes ugly but always strong. I looked at all the steps I outlined to show my boss how I would do my job better. I felt gross and ashamed. It was time to feel something else. It was time to be my mother’s daughter. It was time to steal the goddamn dog.


The Purist’s Rain

I. Isaiah’s home

Isaiah Baptiste was considered a man of good faith among our Cartersville Baptist congregation. According to our church pastor, Mortimer Creedy, there was no other Christian more worthy of being spared by the terrible floods that occurred in Georgia between September 15th and 23rd during the year of 2009. In fact, within his Sunday morning sermon the day after the rains, Pastor Creedy revealed that God had freed Isaiah from any flood damages on his property due to his steadfast service to earth water conservation. Of course, the Bartow County people believed Pastor Creedy’s words to be true. Before the locals knew Isaiah to be a man of good faith, he first became popular for being the man who collected the rainwater in large tin tubs which he placed all over his property. These tin basins were shiny silver, favoring summer solstice cauldrons. It would look like the little do-gooder was conjuring something up. Folks would say Isaiah Baptiste collected rainwater to hydrate his prize-winning cucumbers. I can’t remember a year when he didn’t win a blue ribbon for his crop of cukes at the Acworth Spring Festival. Even Mary Humblesmith, his widowed neighbor, would make a big deal of them damn cukes by weaving a special basket for them each year full knowing they would be photographed by community newspapers upon receiving their blue ribbon. But long before it was acquired and adequately restored by Isaiah Baptiste, the home and land belonged to nearly four generations of Mickens clan. I am Toby Mickens. Isaiah’s home was the house I grew up in as a boy with PawPaw, Mama, and my sister, Virginia. Our winter’s white Antebellum colonial sat on 62 green acres. Due to its secluded location in the hardwoods bordering Lake Allatoona, this magnificent edifice escaped the fiery fate of Sherman’s forces that so many of the other grand old plantation homes endured. It wasn’t ours anymore. We lost it. Yet, I still watched over it often. Most afternoons, I’d pass by the Baptiste home while riding in my Paw Paw’s dusty, fire-engine red Chevy. Some days, I peeked in on the Baptiste’s ongoings without ever being seen. And many times, I would take sleuth strolls onto their land making my way to the abandoned shed to sit for hours on end.

Isaiah Baptiste also married very well, according to many in our congregation. Patience was his wife’s name; a faintly aloof, yet striking belle from Savannah. She met Isaiah at the Young Christian Leadership Conference there in the spring of 2000. They were both in their twenty’s then. However, Patience was on the younger side. Her chestnut eyes, her kaolin white skin, and regal cheek bones… reminded you of an old Hollywood glamazon like Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor. Imagine those divas dressed in long-sleeved, high-collared, pastel-colored blouses fit for clandestine secretaries; and ankle length, pleated skirts fit for tragic spinsters. Patience’s healthy black mane was usually severely domesticated in a perfect chignon raised strategically above her neck to expose her grandmother’s wedding pearls hugging her sumptuous nape. This was Patience Baptiste. A Buddy Holly glasses wearing woman, who read to her husband at the beginning and end of each day, stories of Jesus and his disciples; because she knew it pleased him. Many considered her a woman of good faith.


Now on the day of the last rain storm, the flooding was brutal. Five people died and our church was demolished. Three of their corpses washed away on the grounds while bumping into the dozens of fallen 100-year-old magnolias that lay in our streets and across our front lawns. Out of a congregation of 73 members, 36 of them had lost their homes and were desperately waiting on any aid that they could find. President Obama, God bless him, declared a state of emergency; and FEMA eventually came to our rescue in their own sweet time.

Isaiah, being the good Christian he was, volunteered to assist those in need. He and Patience made fifty peanut butter sandwiches and placed them in a green tote by the front door. In his barn, Isaiah had stored over fifty 10-gallon jugs of his rainwater; in case Georgia had another drought. However, he knew the rainwater would serve his fellow towns people better during this natural disaster; since many of them were without drinking water.

Pastor Creedy had called Isaiah before dawn and informed him that there would be a resource shed set up near the Sanderson’s pig farm which about 5 miles up the road. He asked Isaiah to manage that station all day by leading volunteers to assist with food and water distribution. Isaiah accepted this task without hesitation. Before he left he kissed Patience on her forehead and looked upon her angelic face. She placed her hand on his chest and lightly stroked him with her fingertips slowly upwards then downwards. “I’m so lucky to have such a giving husband,” she whispered and gave him a dry, protracted kiss on the side of his neck. Isaiah stepped away slightly and gave her the nervously sheepish grin of a school boy. “I’m just doing what I know others would do for me, he said to her with an uneasy wink. He strapped up one of his 10 gallon jugs filled with rainwater to a rigged external frame taken from his backpack; supported by bungee cords and four leather belts. Due to the flooding on the roads, he knew that he couldn’t take his truck so he would have to sacrifice his back.

Patience stood by the window and gazed back at her husband’s last traditional wave by their tainted eggshell colored mailbox. She waved back eagerly waiting for him to turn on to the main road.

The morning sky was muddled; mirroring murky images inside the tins of water resting in the front lawn. The captured rainwater inside those silver basins became dozens of portable projector screens reporting the events of its temperamental environment; reflecting black crows on the Baptiste rooftop.

Patience immediately started her cleaning. The Baptiste home was quite substantial so every chore needed a considerable amount of attention. Though, Patience didn’t really have the time on that particular day. She just wanted to perform a quick “once over” cleaning to the main parts of the house that were always seen by company; dusting and Windexing the living room, sweeping the porch, and scrubbing the bathroom floor special mixture of lavender oil, baking soda, and a bit of white vinegar. Patience opened all windows and burned a small bushel dried sage to cleanse the air in each room. She lit five candles and placed them on the living room table next to her silver tray which held hot, Earl Gray in its dainty matching tea pot; as well as, two ivory saucers, two ivory cups, and two tiny ivory bowls containing raw sugar and coconut milk. Finally, in the center of the table, she placed a platinum platter of cucumber sandwiches made with cukes, gruyere cheese, Brandywine tomatoes, and thinly sliced basil.

After she primed the intended areas, Patience looked down upon her house dress. It had become soiled from dusting and wet from scrubbing… as were her arms and feet. In the hallway, she took off her dirty, yellow dress and walked naked to the hamper near the bathroom door and dropped it in. She walked into her bathroom. Grabbing three towels from the linen closet, she laid one on the clean, pink and black tiled floor. Patience walked upon it and placed one towel on the closed toilet seat. The other towel she wrapped over hair like a turban. Patience pulled back the charcoal and buttermilk checkered shower curtain to unveil their grand claw foot tub that sat next to a large open window. The clement breeze scurried past her nipples and moved up and around her navel. She filled the tub with hot water, sprinkling in some jasmine bath salts that Isaiah bought for her last Valentine’s Day. As her gaze lifted out of the bathroom window, she spied a male figure in a dark hat and baggy clothes, passing the mailbox walking up the driveway. Patience adjusted the towel on her head and stepped into the heated bath. The front door was unlocked… so there was no need to rise. All of the lights in the house were turned off; however, the candles created a suitable daytime vigil for the guest who let himself into the Baptiste home with ease taking off his hat, trench, and boots before entering into the living room. It was Pastor Creedy.

He had brought a crystal vase of flowers this time. The good pastor had heard in a movie once that the gift of lilies translated as, “I dare you to love me.” Creedy was quite proud of his choice of flora given the occasion. As he placed the vase on the chestnut coffee table, Creedy glanced at the candle lit display of delish delectables that Patience so handsomely arranged. He smiled, and as he did, he inhaled a whiff of moist jasmine in the air. The open windows allowed the breeze to transport the calming aroma all around the house. The scent became potent with each step, as Creedy strolled with ease towards the bathroom. “I left a clean towel out for you… I think a hot bath is just what you need after a walk in the rain, Pastor,” Patience offered sweetly from the tub. She continued to speak while she massaged herself in places that were covered by the bubbles, luring Creedy closer to the tub with each stroke she took. “I think today I will just watch you enjoy the water, if you don’t mind,” said Creedy, drinking in Patience’s persistent gaze. Patience playfully pouted and folded her arms underneath her naked breasts. She arched her back with calculated poise. “Oh, but I sooooo do mind,” she responded. “It’s been almost two weeks since your last visit so you have some making up to do with me, good Pastor,” Patience teased. Precipitously, she stood straight up in the tub exposing her naked wet skin. Loosening his tie, Creepy smiled. He moved the extra towel from the toilet seat to the countertop next to the sink. Creedy took a seat on top of the closed toilet. He shifted his legs near the edge of the tub. Staying in the tub, Patience moved toward Creedy’s feet. She took his shoes off, and then his socks. Finally, Patience unwrapped the towel turban from her head. Slowly and without breaking eye contact with her guest, she released the long metallic hair pins one by one from the bun on her head. Creedy had always loved watching her. Patience knew this. Patience had always loved pleasing him. With all her might, for she was quite the skinny woman, Patience lifted up his hairy, sweaty feet and placed them inside the perfectly warmed ambrosial bath alongside her submerged thighs. Creedy’s head tilted back and his eyes closed, marinating on the moment’s bliss. His whole body became warm, relaxed, and revived. As Patience’s fingers captured the last hair pin, she shifted her head forward and her let her splendid onyx mane fall. Her jet-black tresses completely covered Creedy’s ankles and feet in the bathwater. With her right hand, and keeping her head and gaze lowered, she grabbed the jasmine bar soap and lathered her mane in the water. Patience clutched her sudsy mop of hair and used it as one would a sponge to clean Creedy’s tired feet. He moaned with each stroke. He held his head back. His eyes still closed shut. She washed his feet and toes with intention. Each stroke unlocked a new sensation in Patience’s guest. His member hardened. Creedy felt like a junior varsity baller again watching the varsity cheerleaders practice for the homecoming parade. And as she washed his feet, Creedy could feel the heat from her hot breath. When he opened his eyes to catch a glance at her, it excited him to know that she was systematically engaged in this sacred act. Patience never lifted her gaze from his feet once, allowing them to be worshipped like a saint. “He was her king,” Creedy thought to himself. He closed his eyes yet again. When she finished washing his feet and placed them in the tub next to her. Patience unplugged the bath drain. She turned the faucet on, and gave her hair a thorough washing with her jasmine shampoo. And let the warm water rinse off all of the soap and remnants from her magnificent mane. Finally, Patience grabbed the towel that had been her turban, and dried off Creedy’s pampered feet. When he finally opened his eyes, his socks and shoes were already on.

II. Corn whiskey

Folks used to say PawPaw lost our home because the Gillian Kaolin Company went bankrupt. He along with many others in our family mined kaolin for over 20 years. Next to cotton, kaolin was considered the “white gold” of the south. However, between you and me, the closing of the kaolin company was not the real reason PawPaw lost his job. In fact, I think it was my PawPaw that started that rumor in the first place. Mama and I knew better. It was the gambling. It was the corn whiskey from Kentucky. When drunk, PawPaw was meaner than a copperhead caught in a haystack. Corn whiskey was his oldest friend. They went steady. It made him do the unspeakables. Like the time my sister, Virginia, came home and told us she was 4 months pregnant. She was barley 15. She had hidden that baby from everyone because she was scared of what PawPaw would do. I remember we were all sitting in the living room eating TV dinners watching HeeHaw on the boobtube. Virginia walked right in front of us: me, PawPaw, and mama. Virginia’s freckled face was stained with tears and her usually well-groomed auburn sun-bursted curls collapsed lifelessly in a messy ponytail. “You ain’t gonna like what I have to say,” Virginia said nervously. She continued, “But I think that if you give me a chance to explain things…” but PawPaw impatiently interrupted with, “No ma’am, who the hell you think you are? Coming in my house… calling a fucking family meeting in the middle of HeeHaw,” he shouted angrily, slamming a fresh Bud on the table knocking over his Mickey Mouse ashtray filled with the butts of Newport lights. The stale ash lingered in the air. It carried over in my direction. I sneezed twice. Mama dropped to her knees to clean up the mess. As she did, Mama peeked over at my nervous sister. Virginia forced down a timorous gulp. Her dappled palms were sweaty. She wiped them quickly using the sides of the dandelion house skirt she wore on our Sunday walks in the park. Virginia would always take me to the park after church. We would run silly until Mama called us in for supper. Whenever we played our ridiculously speedy game of ring-around-the-rosy, Virginia’s dandelion skirt twirled like an old merry-go-round’s last run of the summer. That unfortunate day, she grabbed a hold of the sides of her skirt with the last bit of courage she had and said, “Well, you see, me and Solomon are gonna have a baby. I will be 5 months pregnant tomorrow. We love each other and we gonna raise this here baby together,” as Virginia said these words she rubbed over her then noticeable belly with both hands. She wasn’t the smartest of girls. In fact, she had been in special classes for most of her life. But it didn’t matter, because sweet Virginia was one of the prettiest things in our town. Sweet and pretty, a rare jewel. Mama called her ginger girl. “And Toby is my lion boy, he protects us all,” she would say while gazing at me without a smile or a blink.

That day, I remember the love Virginia had in her eyes when she rubbed on her pregnant tummy. I remember the way her salty tears finally pushed through. How those tears ran freely to create moist spots on the slightly exaggerated collar of her pilgrim’s blouse. “You ain’t gonna have no baby with no nigger kaolin miner,” PawPaw threatened while spitting out at Mama. His tone was cold. Me and Mama froze. He stood up tall. PawPaw pointed his crooked left index finger in Virginia’s direction planting his signature soiled grin for all of us to see. Then, he eased out of the living room with his checkered Nascar bib still dangling around his neck. He began singing that damn Dixie song with obvious tension. “Oh, I wish I lived in the land of cotton, ole times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away Dixie land,” PawPaw repeated almost sweetly, as he strolled out the house straight to his shed. Virginia let out awful shrill with her hands covering her eyes. Mama tried to console her as best as she could by putting her arms around her and rocking her back and forth ever so gently. “There, there, my ginger girl, there, there,” she whispered soothingly. Mama told her that it was OK and that we would all work it out. But Virginia and me knew better. Mama never had no control over things in our house. PawPaw was the law. We all knew that. I stayed in the corner hiding behind my GI-Joe army base. When I saw what PawPaw came back with, I dropped my eyes to the ground. I silently sobbed. He had fetched his good switch. Not the gardenia bush one… the braided one, made from the magnolia that ended up being chopped up to make his shed. I was only 9 years old when this incident occurred but I remember like it was yesterday. PawPaw’s good switch was the devil. Anytime, he drank he would do so in the shed. It was where he stored his rifles and knives from the war. PawPaw kept his whiskey on the top shelf displayed like a dusty trophy at the dollar store. He kept the good switch on the bottom shelf against the wooden clock that he got from a garage sale in Brunswick. It had eyes that clock. And I swear my PawPaw started getting meaner ever since that clock came into our lives. Now and again, he rubbed it like a genie when he would drink his corn whiskey. The night before Virginia announced her pregnancy I peeked in at him and watched him speak to the monkey in that clock.

III. The bathroom window

Isaiah watched his wife from the window. He could recognize Patience’s signature silhouette anywhere. Watching her from a distance was his most succulent practice. And their union was the holiest manifestation of his life. Especially when Patience, entertained the company of the chosen men. As the rain beat harder, his hungry eyes squinted behaving closely to the shifting lens of a photographer’s camera. Following her busy shadow through the rain, he still tasted the sweat that always seemed to gather upon the top of his lip. Salty and sweet, this particular sweat was a gift… a savory promise of premeditated rewards. When Isaiah spotted the second silhouette with Patience in the bathroom, he knew it was time. Isaiah leaned against the fecund bush facing the bathroom window. The reliable bush cradled him and kept him invisible while he eagerly pulled down the copper zipper of his soused denim dungarees. “God-fearing gentlemen don’t pull their johnsons out to meet the outside air,” he thought quickly to himself. Men like him kept his business hidden. Untouched. He was a man of good faith. Isaiah believed the act of unzipping gave him enough release to seize his moment.

As Patience began to wash the feet of their invited guest with her charcoal mane, Isaiah opened his mouth widely and silently unleashed a verse from one of his beloved Song of Songs:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.

Because of the savor of thy ointments, thy name is as ointment poured forth,

therefore do the virgins love thee. Draw me, we will run after thee:

the King hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee,

we will remember thy love more than wine….”

Isaiah closed this verse with an Amen, Amen, and a let it be done. His last Amen was said with his head facing towards the red soil. The bloody soil as one man from his town had once called it. His Patience always encouraged him to watch her with their chosen men. They had a special understanding. An arrangement made in private, by dutiful lovers who practiced good faith while spreading holy counsel.

IV. Service

As Isaiah finally reached the flood resource shed, he gazed down at his yellow rain boots smothered in red soil. His socks were soaked. However, Isaiah was relieved that he took the good Pastor Creedy’s advice when he suggested that he brought extra pairs of socks and shoes that would be nice and dry after his 5-mile trek from the house. The storm and flooding had really done a number on the town this time. And as rain continued to fall, Isaiah passed by the lawns of his Christian neighbors finding many of their houses damaged. When Isaiah arrived to the resource shed, Solomon Holloway was directing a FEMA truck towards the houses closest to Lake Allatoona where the flooding worsened. The lines of families had already begun. There were 24 people standing single-filed from a checkpoint that Solomon had setup earlier. Isaiah watched Solomon from a distance. He always thought that Solomon was quite a statuesque being… and he was right. Solomon looked as if he was the template of African gods.

His skin was deep chestnut and it beamed against the light effortlessly. Solomon was a sixty-something gentleman complete with silvery afro tendrils that hung in a blanket of ringlets just grazing the tips his broad shoulders. His full black beard held speckles of grey and was immaculately well-groomed.

Folks said he was Geechee but they didn’t hold him to it since he was a retired Emory professor and his manner of speaking was better than most of the whites in town. New York, they would argue. “Solomon must be from New York City,” the country whites with money would say while sipping on their bourbons.

Isaiah Baptiste was a bit envious that Solomon could wear his African linage like knight’s armor. same African blood ran through Isaiah’s veins as well but no one could ever tell. His great-grandmother was Haitian. Patience advised him to not tell anyone when she first found out. She was almost devastated about the news. And she had already accepted a large sum of money from Isaiah to pay off her adopted family’s home before the wedding. Patience assumed his people all migrated from some French countryside. She adamantly explained to him,” Isaiah, this is ‘family business’ and we need to keep this personal information to ourselves for the betterment of our lifestyle here in rural Georgia.” Since Patience always knew best, Isaiah followed her instructions like a good husband. Several years after they married, Isaiah was organizing some old documents and discovered that Patience’s biological father was a wealthy African merchant from Martinique… but she would go to her grave before she would let that cat out of the bag to anyone.

As Isaiah walked through the clusters of distraught faces, gestured toward Solomon when their eyes finally met through the crowd of folks in line. “Come on up, Isaiah,” Solomon yelled through the chaos. Isaiah raised his right thumb up in acknowledgement and headed his direction. Along the way, he passed crying townsfolk with clothes soaked with water. Little Tammy Anne Fleming, who was 5 years old at the time, had been looking for her mother in the crowd. Isaiah could see that she had a small gash on the right side of her head that was bleeding a bit. Tammy Anne’s usual bright blue eyes were bloodshot from devastation and fatigue. Her blotched cheeks were stained with old tears. Her nightclothes were still on and were smudged with red mud. Her feet were bare. “Come with me Tammy Anne,” Isaiah said reaching out his hand to her softly. But the mussy-pig-tailed Tammy Anne, just ran off in a somber daze disappearing into the rest of the crowd. When Isaiah finally reached Solomon, he smiled at him widely. Solomon shook his hand in relief. “I am so glad to see you, brother,” Solomon said. He continued, “You are safe, praise God. Is Patience here? If so, Fatima could use some help distributing food at our house. We have can and dry foods stocked up in our garage,” said Solomon. “Patience stayed home actually. I wasn’t sure how the roads would be… so she is holding down the fort,” Isaiah said, as he finally took his large backpack off his back. He let out an enormous sigh of relief for his aching back. “You came right on time, I was on my way to organize a team to come with me to Acworth Elementary to send up more supplies for those in town who are without shelter. About 40 of our members have lost everything. “Did you lose power last night,” said Solomon. “The lights flickered in and out a bit but nothing major… plus, we have a generator just in case,” Isaiah admitted. Solomon shook his head in approval. “It is such a privilege to able to have the money to keep our families safe, isn’t it? We need to be counting our blessings, my friend,” said Solomon looking at Isaiah deep into his hazel eyes. And the blushed Isaiah lowered his gaze a bit nervously.


Leaving the church volunteers and FEMA reps to manage the resource shed, Solomon and Isaiah hiked the muddy hills of Bartow Carver Road to Solomon’s house then onward to Acworth Elementary school. Solomon carried Isaiah’s water since he seemed a bit weary from the hike up from his house. As they approached Solomon’s house, they could see Fatima making some kind of announcement to the families to keep the order. “Please we must maintain our composures and remain in line,” she said, in a no-nonsense tone laced with just the right amount of sweetness. Fatima was the fairest of them all. Her skin was bittersweet brown. She was a well-known photo-journalist from New York. Her prominent family was one of the first to own a beach house in Sag Harbor. Fatima met Solomon at summer lecture at Emory twenty years ago, facilitated by activist and poet, Amiri Baraka. The lecture was held in the immaculate Glen Auditorium, a great sanctuary that Emory shared with the good folks of the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church. Solomon was in his early forty’s then and Fatima was on the younger side of of thirty. Fatima caught his eye when Solomon noticed the dreadlocked empress leaning over the front pew of the auditorium attempting to grab a fallen notebook that fell to the ground. The sound of her composition notebook hitting the Glenn Auditorium floor left a resounding boom activating the impressive acoustics within the large space. Fatima was up front and Solomon was about two rows back. Rather than let a braver man have the opportunity of retrieving this important artifact of this gazelle like creature, Solomon jumped out of his seat. With a steady pace, he strolled down the indigo carpet in the middle of the grand auditorium to pick up her notebook. He watched amusingly as Fatima tried to stretch her short yet athletic arms towards the floor to retrieve it. Her massive honey-colored mane fell forward against her cheeks; and they were so long they almost touched the floor. Solomon could smell a whiff of her black coconut oil mixed with a touch of myrrh as he approached her. It was as if Fatima had cast a spell upon him that day. After he rescued her notebook, he assisted her clumsily back in her seat. And Isaiah secretly vowed to never leave this stranger’s side. “He would have to know her,” he thought to himself. Either as a friend, lover, or just a fellow community builder… Solomon knew that he just needed a reason to know her.

V. The Lion boy

The night before Virginia told us about the pregnancy, PawPaw spent the night in his shed. He had just bought a new case of corn whiskey from cousin Earl. The shed was much bigger than most sheds around town. It was the size of a small house. PawPaw even built a matching out-house and outdoor shower with the leftover wood. It was a dark magnolia wood but PawPaw put a cherry stain on it so when the sunlight shown its red hues glimmered. His shed was the perfect man cave. It was complete with a rickety beige lazy boy that sat upon Grandpappy’s black bear rug. When PawPaw was a boy, he helped skin that black bear while camping out on the Appalachian Trail. And while he was in the shed the night before Virginia told us her baby news, PawPaw rested in that rickety lazy-boy with his corn liquor in one hand and a NASCAR shot glass in the other. He sat drinking and pouring for hours underneath the bronze Shoney’s restaurant chandler that he salvaged from a junkyard in Darien. PawPaw rested with bare zombie-white feet snuggled beneath the fur of the black bear waiting on sleep to eventually step in as usual.

Most evenings Mama reminded, “after dinner I want you to set your clock and wake up before midnight to check on your PawPaw. You are the lion boy, and it is your job to protect the family, Toby dear.” So, that night I followed her instructions. I spied on PawPaw from outside of the shed. I remained hidden and peeked inside using the help of a loose board that I rigged a while back. PawPaw used to fall asleep smoking so Mama had me take turns with her most nights to put his cigarette out. On that particular evening, before PawPaw drifted off, he started whispering to himself. Then I saw him turn towards the clock. It was in the shape of a house… the kind of spooky home kids would never visit. It seemed to have been made from a wide-trunked tree that I’m sure lived a long life before it was chopped down. This house clock had four creepy windows that seemed to serve as its eyes, nose, and mouth. PawPaw told me and Virginia once that the clock’s numbers were roman. Every even hour, all of the closed shutters of the wooden clock would open and a tiny furry toy monkey dressed in a polished blue suit with gilded trimmings along the seams would come out with shifty eyes. This monkey posed with one hand nestled in his jacket at its heart. The other hand held a small decorative sword that rested at its side. Upon its head, it wore a miniature hat, a charcoal bicorne to be exact, made of the finest velvet. And on that night of drinking, after the clock struck 12am, the monkey came out of the mouth of that clock and rested on its wooden porch. And I saw PawPaw immediately turned his head toward the monkey as if it had called out his name. He began speaking directly to it in some kind of gibberish that I didn’t understand. But whatever he was talking about made him angrier and angrier. After about an hour of him speaking to that clock, PawPaw got tired and popped another cigarette in his mouth. He fell asleep before he could finish his smoke. He started snoring loudly. I creeped inside put his lit cigarette out. And I took one look at the clock and saw its eyes shift. As the clock struck 1am, the fancy toy monkey creeped its fuzzy feet back with three mechanical steps into his house with the olive window shutters shutting silently in front of him.

VI. Dinner guests

After Pastor Creedy left, Patience placed smartly seasoned oxtails in her crockpot and allowed them to slowly cook throughout the day so it would be ready for the evening supper. She also roasted russets with the last of the rosemary salvaged from their storm damaged garden. Although it was only her and Isaiah, Patience always cooked enough for six due to being the eldest girl in a family of six. Her daddy left when she was eight so her and her mother worked as a team to feed her four sisters. Isaiah called his wife to make sure she set the table for four. Since they had such a long day of assisting their fellow townspeople in need, Isaiah invited Solomon and Fatima Holloway for dinner to pay thanks for driving him home in their fully-loaded, sienna Land Rover. Isaiah knew the company would be fine with Patience. A visit from the Holloway’s always pleased her. When they pulled in the Baptiste driveway around sundown, Patience came out on their enormous porch and waved happily. She was wearing a simple white linen sundress that blew effortlessly against the early autumn breeze. Her black hair was pulled back in her usual overly style chignon. The 1950’s style black framed glasses that she wore shifted a bit from her nose. Patience gave them a quick push back and gave her lips a quick touchup with the nude lipstick she kept in the pocket of her sundress.

Solomon parked the car in the muddy driveway. When he got out of his vehicle, Solomon walked around to open the passenger side door for Fatima. As he did so, he pointed his left finger at Patience and gave her a quick smile with a perfect wink which made her unexpectedly adjust the pearls around her now slightly sweaty neck. Solomon opened Fatima’s door and attempted to help her down from the truck. But Fatima resisted his assistance and placed one hand on the door handle and the other hand gathered a bit of the bottom of her skirt to protect it from the muddy ground. Solomon remained dutifully by her side, making sure that she didn’t slip on the walk over to the front porch. He loved taking care of her in those ways. It made him feel like a good husband. After tightening his loose shoe laces, Isaiah jumped out the truck with his empty backpack and headed towards the house. “Oh, I love it when Patience comes out and greets me after a long day”, he whispered to himself. When Isaiah walked on his porch, he wrapped his arms around his petite wife and gave Patience a hard-pressed kiss on her dainty cheek. She winced a bit but still kissed him back routinely then swiftly released herself from his embrace so she could greet her guests. The back of her hand gave an unnoticeable wipe to her cheek to remove the remnants of her husband’s juicy peck. Patience watched curiously as Solomon and Fatima walked up with a two-person distance between them. Solomon grabbed Fatima’s hand while they were walking up the steps. Fatima didn’t grip it back. She didn’t resist either. She surrendered to be lead. Patience gazed down out their hands and smiled sweetly. She immediately looked up and kissed both of them on the sides of their cheeks. “It has been too long, Holloways! I hope you are hungry,” she said, holding the house door open for her guests. “Yes, we are starved, are you sure we are not being a bother? Showing up unannounced and all,” Fatima said. “Course not, I know the last thing you are wanting to do is cook tonight after the day you all have had. Come on inside and wash your hands supper is already done,” Patience said. As she let them inside her house, she examined the dress Fatima was wearing wondering where she might have found such fabric to make such a garment. She shook her head in slight disapproval. However, Fatima looked radiant as always in her saffron gown that she had paid way too less for at a street market in Goa while on assignment covering a Diwali festival for the Times. The dress was at least ten years old but it still adorned her chocolate form beautifully. She participated in her first Holi festival in that gown. And every time she wore it Fatima felt grounded, the dress reminded her of the commitment to her yoga, her bhakti, and to herself.

Patience was quite the gourmet, and on this particular evening she let her culinary talents shine brightly with intention. The Baptiste dining table was exquisitely arranged. It was decorated with eight candles. Two for each person. The food was placed in the center of these candles placed inside silver covered dishes that seemed to be expensive heirlooms only to be taken out of Isaiah’s grandmother’s hutch for special occasions. There were four plates and four chairs. One of the plates seemed to be intentionally surrounded by stemless yellow dandelions and the other plates only had one yellow flower to the left of its side. As both couples, stood by the dining table, Fatima stepped toward the seat that had the most dandelions. Patience immediately stopped her and said, “Oh, no dear, I have your seats all ready for your comfort, please sit here”, Patience said as she guided her to a seat with only one flower. Fatima thanked her and sat down at her assigned seat. Patience guided her husband, Isaiah, and lead him to the seat next to Fatima which also held a single dandelion. Isaiah thanked her and kissed her hand softly. Then, Patience walked over to Solomon, took him by the hand, and lead him to the seat that sat with the plate completely surrounded with a small wreath of yellow flowers. Solomon thanked her as well and said, “what a beautiful arrangement, my sister, it is such a blessing to be served with this type of honor.” Patience blushed, then nodded at him and said,” the pleasure is all mine, brother Solomon.” Patience quickly took her seat and took a couple of sips of her wine. Isaiah smiled at his guests and stood up, “let us hold hands and bow our heads in prayer.” Patience took the hands of Isaiah and Solomon and lowered her head to pray. Fatima immediately placed her hands in her lap. She closed her eyes. Everyone bore witness to her actions. Solomon responded by gazing up at her for a bit then shaking his head in shame of his wife. He lowered his head again. Isaiah squeezed the hand of Solomon a little tighter in acknowledgment and continued, “God our Father, Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, thank you for your love and favor. Cover this supper with your blood, we pray. And all who shares with us today.” And those at the table with the exception of Fatima, concluded Isaiah’s grace with, “Amen, Amen, Amen, and let it be done.”

VII. Virginia’s gone

After my sister, Virginia, told us about her pregnancy, PawPaw got that look in his eye. Mama and me knew that look well. It was the look a feral cat gave when he spotted a wounded squirrel in its path. And when PawPaw started humming, we all knew Virginia didn’t have a chance. PawPaw hummed and sang Dixie right before our whippings. That’s how we knew it was coming. I guess it helped moved things along. Like when Snow White’s dwarves would go off to work and start singing their Hi-Ho song. Yep, the Dixie song was PawPaw’s work song: “Oh, I wish I lived in the land of cotton, ole times there are not forgotten, look away, look away, look away Dixie land.” PawPaw repeated these words somewhat sweetly, as he strolled out the house straight to his shed. Virginia let out awful shrill with her hands covering her eyes. Mama tried to console her as best as she could by putting her arms around her, rocking her back and forth, ever so gently. “There, there, my ginger girl, there, there,” she whispered soothingly. Mama looked back at me with swollen eyes red from stinging tears. “Toby, don’t you move from the corner, baby. You are my lion boy and you have to stay brave for your Mama, you hear me boy?” I nodded quickly and replied, “yes Mama.” She stroked on Virginia’s hair and looked back again at me one last time, “good boy”, she said attempting to clear her throat to regain some composure. But it didn’t matter. Mama never had no control over things in our house. PawPaw was the law. And we could all smell the corn whiskey on his breath when he came back with the braided switch. It was time for a whipping. “Virginia, get your fat ass on the lawn right his minute,” PawPaw said. Mama let out a shrill that made the back of my neck break out into blotchy hives. She held Virginia close to her bosom. “Now we need to talk about this more civil like, Sir,” she nervously yelled out to PawPaw through the open window. And then Mama began repeating David’s prayer in Psalm 51 over and over again:

“O loving and kind God, have mercy Have pity on me and take away the awful stain of my transgressions. Oh, was me, cleanse me from this guilt. Let me be pure again….” But Mama’s words had no power. PawPaw was the law. He came inside the house and charged in the living room ripping Virginia from Mama’s grasp. Mama screamed aloud again and started crying hysterically. I peeked out the window. PawPaw dragged my pregnant sister by the hair all the way out on the porch steps. Virginia screamed aloud holding on to her swollen belly, “My baby boy. My baby boy.” PawPaw began whipping her with the braided switch. He held one hand on one of her arms and the older hand on the switch. Whipping her intentionally with a systematic pace void of syncopation. Whipping her while sweat poured like Amicola Falls from his protruding forehead. He beat her with the switch until her screams stopped. Her legs were redden with welts. Many of the yellow dandelions on her ripped skirt were bespattered with blood and dirt. He whipped her on the Mickens’ lawn until her body went limp. Virginia’s hair was mangled. When PawPaw found that she was no longer moving, he stopped whipping her. He laid her down on the ground and then called for me. My heart dropped. “Toby get out here,” PawPaw yelled from the lawn. I got up out of the corner. I passed Mama on the couch and she was swaying back and forth hugging a couch pillow. I stepped over her vomit. She rocked back and forth. Her face was white as a ghost and she was no longer crying. She just kept saying,” my ginger girl, my lion boy… my babies are gone… my ginger girl, my lion boy… my babies are gone….”

I ran out on the house and walked over to PawPaw. I looked down at Virginia. Her eyes were closed and she laid still. “Was she sleeping,” I remembered thinking to myself. Her face was colorless. PawPaw still looked mean as a snake, carrying no remorse he said, “go in my shed and clear out the floor… we gonna dig a hole.” My feet couldn’t move and my gaze was stuck on Virginias motionless body. She was gone, I thought to myself. Mama was right. PawPaw roughly stepped in front of me and gathered a fistful of my shirt collar. He lifted me straight up and put his sweaty forehead on mine. My feet shook in pure fright. “The things that go on at home stay at home, you hear me boy,” he spitted. “Don’t think you gonna tell anybody about this… Virginia just needed to rest is all. She had demons in her. God took her because she sinned the highest of sins and had to be punished. This here is family business, you hear me boy?”, PawPaw threatened. “Yes, sir. Yes, sir what? This here is family business. Good boy, now go in the shed and clear the floor so we can dig ourselves a hole. PawPaw released my shirt and dropped me back down to my feet. Like an obedient son, I did what I was told. I ran into the shed and pushed everything to the side to make space. Moving the black bear rug, PawPaw’s chair, and the monkey clock to the back of the shed. I looked at the time it was 5:45pm. I took out two shovels and placed them in the center of the shed. By the time PawPaw came back carrying Virginia, it was 6pm. The olive shutters of the clock windows opened up and the fancy monkey came out as usual. Its eyes went straight to PawPaw and remained fixed upon his every move. PawPaw looked at me and said, dig boy! and he laid Virginia down on the exposed dirt inside the shed. I dug with the shovel into the rich earth and never looked up. Deeper I dug into that dirt. And didn’t stop digging until PawPaw slapped my back and said that is enough. grab her feet, he told me. I grabbed Virginia’s small feet. Her once perfectly polished toes were blacked from the earth and some of her toe nails were bloodied and scrapped off. It looked like her ankle was broken because of the swelling that had manifested. The baby in her belly was moving. I saw it. I saw it moving as Virginia lay still. PawPaw kept saying that her heart had stopped and that we had to give her a proper burial. As we placed her body in the whole, I felt her foot move and I looked at her chest. She was still breathing. She wasn’t gone. “PawPaw Virginia isn’t gone, she ain’t dead. I felt her foot move”, I pleaded. “Well, if she ain’t gone, she fixing to be… ain’t no seed of mine gonna be having the baby of no nigger kaolin miner. It’s time for her to go,” he snarled. PawPaw continued, “God says punish the sinner so he shall feel the wrath of my fire.” PawPaw picked up the shovel and began putting dirt over my sister. She covered her completely all by himself. I just stood there like a tree rooted in the earth in the middle of a forest fire. I just stood there. “If she wasn’t gone before, she’s gone now,” I thought. When PawPaw was done, he had me move everything back in the head as it was before. Pleased with himself, Paw stood by the door of the shed and took long swigs from his corn whisky watching me closely. I put back down Grandpappy’s black bear rug. I put the lazy boy in its proper place. And I picked up the monkey clock and placed it in its rightful place. And as I did the clock stuck 7pm. I looked down at the fancy monkey and watched him take his steps back inside his home with his eyes fixed on me the entire time.