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[Story]

Maps and Ledgers

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My first year teaching at the university my father killed a man. I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember the man’s name, though I recall the man a good buddy of my father’s and they worked for the city of Pittsburgh on a garbage truck and the man’s family knew ours and we knew some of them, my sister said. Knew them in that way black people who lived in the same neighborhood knew one another and everybody else black in a city that divided itself by keeping all people of color in the same place back then, no matter where in the city you lived.

Illustrations by Jen Renninger

I did not slip up, say or do the wrong thing when the call that came in to the English department, through the secretary’s phone to the chairman’s phone, finally reached me, after the secretary had knocked and escorted me down the hall to the chair’s office, where I heard my mother crying because my father in jail for killing a man and she didn’t know what to do except she had to let me know. She knew I needed to know and knew no matter how much a call would upset me I would be more upset if she didn’t call, even though calling meant, since I didn’t have a home phone yet or a direct line in my office and no cell phones, she would have to use the only number I’d given her and said to use only for emergencies, and wasn’t this an emergency, hers, mine, we had to deal with, she and I, her trying not to weep into the phone she was holding in Pittsburgh while she spoke to strangers in Philadelphia, white people strangers to make it worse, a woman’s voice then a man’s, before she reached me with the news I needed to know and none of it anybody’s business, terrible business breaking her heart to say to me even though I needed to know and would want to know despite where I was and who I was attempting to be, far away from home, surrounded by strangers, probably all of them white, which made everything worse, she didn’t need to say, because I heard it in her voice by the fifth or sixth word, her voice that didn’t belong in the chair’s office, a story not for a chairperson’s ears, but he was Southern gentleman enough as well as enough of a world-renowned Chaucer scholar to hand me the phone and excuse himself and shut the office door behind him so I could listen in peace to my mother crying softly and trying to make sense of a dead man and my father in jail for killing him, his cut-buddy I can say to myself now and almost smile at misunderstandings, bad jokes, ill will, superiority, inferiority stirred up when I switch between two languages, languages never quite mutually intelligible, one kind I talked at home when nearly always only colored folks listening, another kind spoken and written by white folks talking to no one or to one another or at us if they wanted something from us, two related-by-blood languages that throttled or erased or laughed at or disrespected each other more often than engaging in useful exchange, but I didn’t slip once in my conversation with the chair, didn’t say my goddamn daddy cut his goddamn cut-buddy, no colored talk or nigger jokes from either of us in the office when a phone call from my mom busted in and blew away my cover that second or third day of my first or second week of my first college teaching job.

My aunt C got my father a lawyer. Aunt C lived five doors away on our street, Copeland, when I was growing up. My family of mom, dad, five kids had moved into an upstairs three-room apartment in a row house at the end of a block where a few colored families permitted because the housing stock badly deteriorated and nobody white who could afford not to wanted to live on the busted block, after coloreds had been sneaked into a few of Copeland’s row houses or modest two-story dwellings squeezed in between, like the one Aunt C and her husband could afford to buy and fix up because he was a numbers banker, but most of us coloreds, including my mother and father, had to scrimp and scuffle just to occupy month by month, poaching till the rent man put us out in the street again, but residents long enough for their kids to benefit for a while from better schools of a neighborhood all white except for a handful of us scattered here and there down at the bottom of a couple of streets like Copeland.

Aunt C a rarity, a pioneer you might say, because she worked in the planning office of the city, a good job she finessed, she explained to me once, by routing her application through the Veterans Administration since she’d served as a WAC officer during World War II and guessed that by the time the city paper pushers noticed her color disqualified her, the military service record that made her eligible for a position and elevated her to the top of the list would have already gotten her hired, the only woman, only colored, decades before anybody colored not a janitor or a cleaning woman got hired by the city to work in downtown office buildings. Aunt C, who I could always count on to find some trifling job around her house for me to earn a couple of quarters when I needed pocket change or bigger jobs car washing, neatening up, and cutting the grass in her tiny back yard when I needed new sneakers or a new shirt my parents couldn’t buy, and then counted on her again years later because she was the one who knew everybody and everybody’s dirt downtown, and got my father — her older brother — an attorney, a colored one who also knew everybody and everybody’s dirt downtown, the man as much of a rarity or more, an exception in his way as my aunt, since he not only practiced law but served in the state legislature as majority Speaker, an honor, achievement, irony, and incongruity I haven’t been able to account for to this day, but he wound up representing my father and saving him from prison, thanks to Aunt C. That same colored lawyer one day would say to me, shaking his head and reaching out and placing his hand on my shoulder, family of poor old Aeschylus got nothing on yours, son, as if to inform me, though he understood both of us already knew, that once my mother’s phone call had caught up with me, Aunt C doing her best or no Aunt C, things would only get worse.

No, my father didn’t serve time for murder. Lawyer plea-bargained self-defense, and victim colored like my father anyway, so they chose to let my father go. But things did get worse. My father’s son, my youngest brother, convicted of felony murder. And years later my son received a life sentence at sixteen. My brother, my son still doing time. And my father’s imprisoned son’s son a murder victim. And a son of my brother’s dead son just released from prison a week ago. And I’m more than half-ashamed I don’t know if the son, whose name I can’t recall, of my brother’s dead son has fathered son or daughter. My guess is the rumor of a child true, since if my grandnephew was old enough for adult prison, he would be way past the age many young colored men father babies back home.

Gets confusing doesn’t it. Precedents from Greek mythology or not. Knowing or not knowing what variety of worse will probably come next if you are a member of my colored family hunkering down at the end of Copeland or on whatever divided street you think of as home or whatever you may think a home is. Gets damn confusing. I lose track of names. Generations. No end in sight. Or maybe I already know the end and just don’t want to think about it out loud. Whose goddamn business is it anyway. Knucklehead, fucking hardheaded young bloods and brothers. Goddamn Daddy. Goddamn cut-buddy. Words I didn’t slip and say out loud that day attempting to explicate an emergency to my chairman in the departmental office.

Get away, I kept telling myself, and none of this happens.

I had always been impressed by my grandmother Martha’s beautiful hand. Not her flesh-and-blood hand. Her letters. Her writing. Perfect letter after letter in church ledgers and notebooks year after year in my grandmother Martha’s beautiful hand. You almost felt a firm, strong hand enfolding, guiding yours if your turn to read Sunday-school attendance or minutes of the Junior Deacons’ board, each letter flowing into the next into the next word then next sentence so you didn’t stumble or mumble repeating aloud what you found waiting for you so peacefully, patiently, perfectly shaped between faint blue lines on each page.

Letter after letter perfect as eggs. Perfect as print. But better. Her hand cursive. Letters flowing like alive things that grow. One growing live into or from the other, whether connections visible or not. As the Bible grows, if you are taught to read it in the fashion I was. Each verse, each psalm, parable, book, sermon connected. Truths alive and growing in the pages after you learn in church how to read Bible words. Cursive you learn in school. “Cursive” one of many strange words telling you a different language spoken in school and you will always be a stranger in that strange land. Not everybody good at cursive, not every boy or girl in class remembers new words or gives a flying fuck if they do or don’t, but my grandmother’s cursive flows seamlessly page after page when you leaf through one of the old Homewood AME Zion notebooks and ledgers with thick, ornate covers she filled and you are not aware until you discover one more time as you always do how shabby the world will be, how much it hurts when her hand drops yours and perfect writing stops.

My grandmother picked her husbands as carefully, perfectly as she performed her church-secretary cursive. Except every now and then she decided it was time to change scripts. After she abandoned then divorced her first husband — a dark-skinned workingman, shy emigrant from rural Promised Land, South Carolina, father of my father and my aunt C, the man I grew up calling Grandpa — my grandmother Martha chose to marry preachers. A series of three or four preachers whose names I often could not remember when they were alive, names mostly lost now they are dead, like the name of the man my father killed. Uncle this or Uncle that is what I called my grandmother’s husbands and one I called Reverend because he addressed me as Professor, a darky joke we shared, minstrels puffing each other up with entitles, Yo, Mr. Bones. Wuss up, Mr. Sambo.

Same grandmother who wrote beautiful cursive, played deaf (almost but not quite her version of darky joke) when people were saying things she preferred not to hear. A highly selective deficit she displayed only when she chose. For instance, sitting on her pink couch she protected with a transparent plastic slipcover, chattering away with a roomful of other family members, if someone mentioned the name of one of ours in trouble or prison, my grandmother Martha would shut her eyes, duck her head shyly, totally absent herself as if she’d suddenly nodded off like very old folks do. If you didn’t know better, you’d think she was missing the conversation. Elsewhere. Immune. But if the unpleasant topic not dropped quickly enough to suit her, she would shush the person speaking by tapping an index finger against her pursed lips. Not nice . . . shhh. Some mean somebody might be listening and spread nasty news about a son or grandson or nephew shot dead in the street three years ago or locked up in the pokey twenty years, or a slave two hundred years ago. Shhh. Whisper, she orders as she leans over, pouts, and mimics whispering. Best whisper in a family member’s ear so cruel strangers can’t overhear, can’t mock names of our dead, our wounded, our missing ones.

I regard my empire. Map it. Set down its history in ledgers. Envy my grandmother’s beautiful hand. Her cold-bloodedness. I’ve done what I needed to do to get by, and when I look back, the only way to make sense of my actions is to tell myself that at the time it must have seemed I had no other choice.

As far back as I can remember, I was aware the empire I was building lived within an empire ruled by and run for the benefit of a group to which I did not belong. Mm’fukkahs, the man, honkies, whitey, boss, peckerwoods, ma’am, fools, mister, sir — some of the names we used for this group not us, and the list of names I learned goes on and on, as many names probably as they learned to call us by. Growing up, if I found myself talking to people, small gathering or large, almost always it would be composed exclusively of members of my group or, except for me, members of the other. On the other hand, nothing unusual about contact between the two groups. Ordinary, daily mixing the rule not the exception. In public spaces we politely ignored each other or smiled or evaded or bumped, jostled, violently collided, or clashed. Passed through each other as easy as stepping through a ghost. Despised, killed each other just as easily, though since the others held the power, many, many more fatal casualties in our group resulting from those encounters than in theirs.

Majority rules, we learned. Fair enough. Except, since we spent most of our time among our own kind, talking, interacting only with each other, slippage occurred naturally. Reinforced by the presence of friends and family, we considered ourselves among ourselves the equal of others. Or considered ourselves better. Considered our status as minority, as inferior, not to be fact. Or at best a relative fact, irrelevant to us unless we assumed the point of view of the group not our group. On good days members of our group would make fun of such an assumption. Bad-mouth the other group with all the nasty names we dreamed up for them. Names and laughter like talismans — string of garlic, sign of the cross — European people in the old days would brandish to fend off a vampire. A survival strategy we practiced while the other group survived by arming themselves, by erecting walls, prisons, churches, laws. By chanting, screaming, repeating, believing their words for us.

Ain’t nothing but a party, old Aunt May always said. How long, how long, sighed Reverend Felder in Homewood AME Zion’s pulpit, Dr. King in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist’s.

Aunt May’s skin a lighter color than my grandmother Martha’s light brown, and the difference, slight though it was, cowed my grandmother enough to look the other way or pretend to be deaf when May got loud, raunchy, or ignorant at family gatherings. May, tumbler of whiskey held down with one hand on the armrest of her wheelchair while the hand at the end of her other arm points, wiggles, summons all at once, a gesture synced with a holler, growl, and Mm?mm, boy, you better get yourself over here and gimme some sugar, boy, get over here and dance with your aunt May, boy, you think you grown now, don’t you, you sweetie pie, past dancing wit some old, crippled-up lady in a wheelchair, ain’t that what you thinking, boy? Well, this old girl ain’t done yet. Huh-uh. You all hear me, don’t you? Ain’t nothin’ but a party. Woo-wee. Get your narrow hips over here, you fine young man, and dance wit May.

They left something behind in Aunt May’s gut they shouldn’t have when they sewed her up after surgery. Staple, piece of tape, maybe a whole damn scalpel, my sister rolled her eyes telling me. You know how they do us, my sister said, specially old people can’t help themselves, won’t speak up — poor May in terrible pain, belly blew up and almost dead a week after they sent her home. So weak and full of drugs, poor thing, lying there in her bed could barely open her eyes. But you know Aunt May. Ain’t going nowhere till she ready to go. Hospital didn’t want her back, but we fussed till they sent an ambulance. Opened her up again and took out whatever festering. May got better. Didn’t leave from here till she was good and ready to leave. You know May. Hospital assholes never even said they were sorry. Threw May away like a dirty old rag after they saw they hadn’t quite killed her, and then got busy covering their tracks. May dead two years before anybody admitted any wrongdoing. Too late to hold the hospital accountable. Simpleminded as all those pale folks on May’s side the family always been, couldn’t get their act together and sue the doctors or hospital or some cotton-picking somebody while May still alive.

May’s nephew Clarence, you remember him. Browner than I am, I reminded my sister as if she didn’t already know. I ran into him five, six years ago, when I was in town for something. Clarence a cook now. Guess at some point May and her pale sisters decided some color might be a good idea. Two, maybe three married brothers from the same brown-skinned family, didn’t they, and broke the color line, so Clarence and a bunch of our other second cousins or half cousins or whatever, after a couple more generations of marrying and mixing, got different colors and names and I’ve lost track, but Clarence I knew because he was my age and a Golden Gloves boxer and everybody knew him and knew his older brother, Arthur, in jail for bank robbery, put away big-time in a federal penitentiary, so when Clarence walked into Mrs. Schaefer’s eleventh-grade class, which was a couple grades further than Clarence ever got, he wasn’t supposed to be in that eleventh-grade classroom or any other, he just happened to be hanging out strolling the high school halls and saw me and came in and hollered, Hey, Cuz, how you doing, man. And me, I kind of hiss-whispered back, Hey, what you doing here? Him acting like nobody else in the classroom when he strutted in, walked straight to my seat in the back, loud-talking the whole way till I popped up, Hey, Cuz, and hugged him, shocking the shit out of Mrs. Schaefer because I was her nice boy, good student and good citizen and example for all the other hoodlums. You could tell how terrified the poor white lady was most the time, coming every day into a school not all colored yet but getting there and getting worse and she needed me as much as I needed her, we both understood, so who in hell was this other tall colored boy acting like he owned her classroom with nobody he had to answer to but himself and that was my cousin Clarence, he couldn’t care less what anybody else thought, you could tell just looking at him once, stranger to you or not, that you better go on about your own business and hope this particular reddish-brown-skinned Negro with straight, dago-black hair and crazy eyes got no business with you. You heard the stories, didn’t you, Sis? You most likely told some of them to me — bouncer at a club downtown, mob enforcer maybe, got paid for doing time for the crime of some Mafia thug don and afterward Cousin Clarence a kind of honorary made man, people say, but most of the worst of that bad stuff long after we hugged and grinned and took over Mrs. Schaefer’s class a minute because he didn’t care and I forgot for once to care who it belonged to.

Aunt C, my father’s sister, got him a fine lawyer. But things continued to get worse. Worse is what you begin to expect if worse is what you get time after time. Worse, worser, worst. Don’t let the ugly take you down, my mother said. Don’t let it make you bitter and ugly, she said. She had led me by the hand to a few decent places inside me where she believed and tried to convince me that little sputtering lights would always exist to guide how I should behave once I left home and started a grown-up life. Her hand not as powerful and elegant as my grandmother Martha’s, but my mother wrote good letters, clear, to the point, often funny, her cursive retaining features of the young girl she’d been when she learned to write. Neat, precise, demonstrating obviously she’d been an attentive student, yearned to get right the lessons she was taught.

Earnest another way of putting it, it being my mom’s character when she was a schoolgirl and then when she fell in love with my father, I bet, and that sort of mother too, I absolutely know, serious, conscientious without being boring, never boring because whatever she undertook she performed in the spirit partly of girls in grade school nearly junior high age, always a little scared but bold too, both idly mischievous and full of hidden purpose, full of giggles and iron courage adults could never comprehend, often dismiss, yet stand in awe of also, charmed, protective of the spark, that desire of young colored girls to grow and thrive, their hunger to connect with an unknown world, no matter how perilous that new-to-them world might turn out to be for girls determined to discover exciting uses for limbs, minds, hearts still forming, still as stunning for them to possess as those girl hearts, minds, limbs were stunning for adults to behold. In the case of my mother, from girlhood to womanhood, an infectious curiosity, a sense of not starting over but starting fresh, let’s go here, let’s do this, not because she had mastered a situation or a moment previously but because uncertainty attracted, motivated, formed her.

Look at this writing, I can almost hear her say, look at these letters, words, sentences, ideas, feelings that flow and connect when we attempt something in this particular, careful fashion, with this cursive we studied and repeated in a classroom, but mine now, see, see it going word by word, carefully, and I follow her words, her writing like that of a bright child who is occasionally distracted while she busily inscribes line after almost perfect line from manual to copybook. Going the way it’s supposed to go. And where it’s going, nobody knows exactly where but it looks the way it should and worth the trouble, the practice, because it’s mine now and yours too, she tells me, if you wish, and work hard at it. Whatever. Take my hand. Hold it as I hold yours, precious boy, and let’s see, let’s see what we shall see.

That’s the message I read in her hand, in letters my mother sent when I went away to college. Letters I receive today from home beyond these pages. Home we share with all our dead.

I thought at the time, the time when I’d just begun university teaching, that the worst consequence of my father stabbing another man to death would be my first meeting with the chair in his office after I returned from Pittsburgh. After I’d said to my mother, Don’t worry, I’ll be home soon, and hung up the phone and tried to explain an ugly, complicated situation in as few words as possible, and the chair had generously excused me from my teaching duties and granted me unconditional license to attend to family affairs. A terrible business, he said. Sorry it hit before you could get yourself settled in here. The worst would be wisdom, commiseration, condolences I’d have to endure one more time animating his face, in his office, in his position as departmental chair after I completed my dirty work at home and stood in his office again, forgiven again by his unrufflable righteousness.

A good man, my mother would call him. Ole peckerwood, May would say. I heard both voices, responded to neither. Too busy worrying about myself. Too confused, enraged, selfish. Not prepared yet to deal with matters far worse afflicting my father, his victim, the victim’s family, all my people back home, our group that another more powerful group has treated like shit for centuries to intimidate and oppress, to prove to themselves that a country occupied by many groups belongs forever, solely, unconditionally to one group.

My sister needs a minute or so to summon up the name, but then she’s certain, James . . . and I think his first name Riley . . . uh-huh . . . Riley James, she says is the name of the man our father killed. Neither of us speaks. Silence we both maintain for a while is proof she’s probably correct. Silence of a search party standing at the edge of a vast lake after the guide who’s led them to it points and says the missing one is out there somewhere. Silence because we’ve already plunged, already groping in the chill murkiness, holding our breath, dreading what we’ll recover or not from the gray water.

Thought I’d recognize the name if I heard it. That jolt, you know, when you’re reminded of something you will never forget. But James sounds right, anyway. And Riley James had kids, didn’t he. Yes, my sister says. Three. One a girl about my age, I’m pretty sure. Used to run into her before it happened.

Coming up, did you ever think we might need to have this conversation one day? Daddy killing someone else’s daddy?

Oh, we knew. Children understand. Don’t need adults to tell them certain things. Kids supposed to listen to grown-ups, better listen if you don’t want a sore behind, but we watch them too. Kids always watching, wondering why big people do what they do. Understand a whole lotta mess out there adults not talking about. Scary mess kids can’t handle. Or maybe nobody, kid or adult, can handle it, so you better keep your eyes wide open. Don’t even know what you looking for except it’s bad. Gonna get you if you not careful. But no. Thank goodness, no. Huh-uh, I’m not standing here today saying that when I was a little girl I could see my father would kill another man. But we knew, we saw with our own eyes awful stuff happening day after day and worse just around the corner waiting to happen. Grown-ups didn’t need to tell us all that mess happening to them. We watched while it happened.

Wish I could disagree, Tish. Wish I could say no, but no, I think we probably did know. You’re remembering right again, Sis.

Will it always be like this, then? Too late. Damage done. Another victim. Trial. Funeral. Inquest. Story in the newspaper, on TV. More tears. Hand-wringing.

It’s worse now. Doesn’t seem possible, but it just might be. Not only for our family. Shit no. Not just us. Everybody. Everybody jammed up here wit us in this stinking mess. Everybody just too scared or too dumb to know it, is what our brother said with his eyes when I came to town to visit and we let go of each other when time for me to leave the prison and he has to stay where he is and nothing to do but look at each other one more time, one more sad, helpless stinking time. Clang, bang, gate shuts behind me and they still got the key.

We had talked about power during that visit. Talked in the cage. Power how long, too long stolen by the ruling group to diminish and control the ruled. Power of this political system that has operated from its start as if vast gaps dividing us from the ruling group either don’t exist or don’t matter. Same ole shit. Ask the brothers in here, our brother says. Ask the outlaws. Ask them about law supposed to protect everybody — rulers and ruled — from one another equally. Law calling itself the will of the people. Law that got all us in here blackened up like minstrels. Color, His Honor Mr. Law says, no problem. While out the other side of his mouth he’s saying color gives law power to abuse color. Look at the color around us in here. Some days I look and cry. Laugh some days. Our colors, our group. Power serves itself. Period. Exclamation point. Truth and only truth, our locked-up brother says. And he’s not wrong, our brother not wrong, so how can I be right? My empire. They slam the gate shut. Blam. Time to leave my brother’s cage, go back in mine. My maps. Ledgers. Theirs.

Remember when I called you couple weeks ago, Sis, and asked the man’s name Daddy killed? Conversation got long, much longer than usual, nice in a way because usually conversations shortish because we skip over awful things and don’t want to jinx good things by talking too much about them, but I remember I think we both got deep into the begats, both trying to recall Daddy’s grandmother’s name and neither could, and Owens popped into my mind and I said Owens to you and you said, Sybil Owens — wasn’t she the slave from down South who came up here to found Homewood? And you were right of course, and I laughed because I was the one who wrote down the Sybela Owens story and you knew the story from my books or from family conversations. Same family conversations from which I’d learned, mostly from May, about May’s grandmother or great-grandmother Sybela, who had fled slavery with a white man who stole Sybela from his slave-plantation-owner father and settled in or near what’s now called Homewood, where one day when May was a little girl she saw, according to her, an old, old woman on a porch in a rocking chair smoking a pipe, woman in a long black dress, dark stockings, and head rag who smiled at her, and she’d hear people say later the old woman was her grandmother, maybe great-grand, and May never forgot and passed on the memory or tale or whatever to us, a story about Mom’s side of the family, not Daddy’s, and I wrote or talked my version of it and you probably heard May herself tell it like I did but years and years ago, and the best we usually do as we try to sort out the family tree and put names to branches, to people, is most likely to mix up things the way I did with “Owens” before you corrected my memory and I reminded myself and you how family stories were partly what one of us had heard live from the mouth of the one who had lived the story or heard it second- or thirdhand and passed it on but partly also stuff I had made up, written down and it got passed around the family same as accounts of actual witnesses telling stories the way May told hers about Sybela. So that day on the phone we were begatting this one from that one and so on, you said, Hold on a minute, and went up to the attic where you keep those boxes and boxes of Mom’s things, the papers and letters she saved from the old people in the family, because you believed there was an obituary in rough draft in Mom’s hand on tablet paper that might tell us Daddy’s grandmother’s name, the name I could hear my father and Aunt C saying plain as day but could not raise beyond a whispering in my ear too faint to grasp or repeat aloud to myself. And sure enough you quickly retrieved information Mom had written down long ago for a church funeral program, maybe for the colored newspaper too, a couple sheets of blue-lined school-table paper, lines and handwriting faded, creases in the paper, the obituary notice we both had remembered but neither could repeat the exact contents of. You had the folded sheets in your hand in a minute once you got up those steep-assed attic steps I worry about my little sis climbing because she’s not little sis anymore.

But sweet still. Yes. This is your eldest brother speaking to you, girl. Two of our brothers gone, just us two left and our brother in the slam and when you read me Mom’s notes for her father’s obituary they included Daddy’s name but did not mention our father’s mother’s mother so of course they solved nothing, just deepened the puzzle of how and why and where and who we come from and here we are again, and whatever we discover about long ago, it never tells us enough, does it. Not what we are or what comes next after all that mess we don’t even know maybe or not happened before . . . well, we try . . . and after I listened to you reading bits of information the note compiled, I thought about the meaning of long ago, and how absolutely long ago separates past and present, about the immeasurable sadness, immeasurable distance that well up in me often when I hear the words “long ago,” and on another day, in another conversation, I will attempt to explain how certain words or phrases reveal more than I might choose to know, an unsettling awareness like seeing an ugly tail on an animal I know damn well has no tail or a tail negligible as the one people carry around and can’t see, and I will ask you, Tish, what if I’m trying to imagine long ago and a shitty, terrible-looking tail appears, a tail like the one I’m sure doesn’t belong on a familiar animal but grows longer, larger and hides the animal. Wraps round and round and takes over. Will there be nothing left then? I will ask you. Nothing. Not even wishful thinking. The life, the long ago, once upon a time I am trying to imagine — gone like the animal not supposed to own a tail and the tail I inflicted upon it.

’s most recent story for Harper’s Magazine, “JB & FD,” was published in the February 2017 issue. This story will appear in his collection American Histories, which will be published next month by Scribner.

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February 2018