Story — From the February 2018 issue

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.

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’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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