Without the support of my agent Liz Kracht and these offspring I made who are superior to me in every way, I probably wouldn't be posting today. I'm still not okay, but I'm aight, if that makes sense. I'm good, in that Chicago way, where the question, "You good?" means everything and anything, like 'fuggedaboudit." Someone points to you and asks, "You good?" and you immediately feel awash in mutuality and respectful aplomb. Folks can feel you hurting but check on you first to see if you're where you want to be inside yourself. When someone asks, "You good?" they're asking to penetrate your space with some love, even if that love is expressed through, "Let's go handle that shit." Sometimes the 'hood produces such brilliant simplicity out of emotional complexity.
My eldest daughter and my son reply with, "I'm good," or, if it's really bad, "I'm aight" or, in Ashley's case, "I prayed on it." My youngest daughter Mari will tell you, flat out, "No, I'm not," but then she's the princess of the family and if you can sense any emotion of hers, at all, we all have to drop what we're doing because her feelings are as deep and complex as an underground river carved through granite. I didn't say anything to her about it because she'd quietly hurt for me and she's so enjoying her life right now. Ashley is the Connie Corleone of my clan. The one who would pick up some special cannoli on the way to the opera. She told me to try to be easy. To trust the Lord, which isn't always easy for me. Danny, Jr. knew enough to feel bad for his pops. He offered to sit with me through it and talk it out, as I've done with problems I've had since he was old enough to speak in complete sentences. I told him I preferred he enjoy his free time instead. He works hard, and he doesn't like it, which is usually impetus for a quick selection on my tiny violin, but this time, I just didn't want to spread it around. I wouldn't want my kids feeling this bad about anything, especially not on my account.
Today I woke up thinking about my parents who have been gone so long but still show up, and usually at the times when I really need to feel like someone's son again. One particular moment from my childhood parallels with my experience of my kids the last two weeks. In that spirit, I'm inspired to share this with you now.
I was a hip kid who always got into stuff, and for me, stuff meant knowledge. There’s some old evil adage about hiding things between the pages of a book. Me, that was the first place I looked. If it was on the radio or on a bookshelf, I had at it, even if I had to take a smack, and there were a lot of them. I never got to tell my parents that the smack helped the understanding settle. If I got hit for saying it, knowing it, or admitting to it, that must’ve been the good stuff. Smacks were my barometer, I’m sayin’. If I made it from the front door to my bedroom with something in my hand and I didn’t hear “C’mere...what’s that...” and get a smack, it may have been back to the library or Rom’s house (his contraband was legendary) to return it. What, no smack? What kind of bunk shit is this??
The reaction was never consistent.
"Aren’t the titties in the Art Institute of Chicago the same as this copy of OUI Magazine I found in the old man’s underwear drawer? Because I’m sure these titties are works of art, same as those we saw when you took us on a personally guided tour over the summer."
"Okay, titties go back in Pop's underwear drawer. Gotcha."
A week later…
"Ma, may I have some money to go to the comic convention at the Congress Hotel with Rom? His pops is driving."
"Take five dollars out my purse."
"Can I have more? I want to get back issues of Heavy Metal Magazine and they cost more than comics."
"What's in Heavy Metal?"
"Um...blood, guts, and lots of titties."
"Even if those titties are lovingly rendered by Frank Frazetta and Moebius?"
"Moebius isn't realistic enough for me. Most comic artists have a shit understanding of human anatomy. Frazetta is alright, although he doesn't understand perspective."
"So can I?"
"There's a twenty in there. Bring back change. Don't ask me for anything else."
Sheeeeit, don't worry.
The old man allowed us hardly anything. It was as if any fun on our part constituted worry for him, so he always wanted his children right where he could hear and see them. When I was a kid, it made him seem like an unconscionable hard case. When I think of it now, it was anxiety. I didn't know about anything happening on the outside of my front door that didn't involve my own desire for expansion. While Rosalita may have maintained a temperament which was slightly more yielding to discovery, the old man worked somewhere that woke him up with an alarm bell, made him slide down a pole and into boots, hop in a 35,000 lb/15,890 kg vehicle that took miles to come to a complete stop and rescue folks from fire despite the criminal element looking on as he invaded their spaces to save their children. I still think he was, on most things, a hard case, but I understand. My mother understood life, at least until my father acquainted her with death, which he knew better than any of us.
So somewhere along the way, life got complicated for everyone, including me, what with my special school that didn't have the same calendar as everyone else. At this point, I'm walking home alone and letting myself in and being alone for several hours each day. The solitude became important to me because I didn't have the same interests as everyone else. I was all set to go inside, make a big-ass peanut butter and jelly sangwich with the jar of Goober Grape that my brothers didn't know about (finally!,) eat it with an equally big-ass glass of cold milk, crack open my Dungeons and Dragons books and Gregory Garrett's new module he got for his birthday and dungeon-master up a good round of D&D over the phone with my school friends. Gregory had three-way calling, as did Julian Hancock, and with both of them calling two friends, we'd have a huge game going. I never minded being a latch-key kid. The term had a nice rebellious ring to it. I was a latch-key kid who could open a trap door under you and leave you to the wights. Might even put a beholder in there, too, if you talk shit about my dungeon-mastering. "Naw, you don't get to see the module." "Don't look at the dice. Look at me." I was a gleeful dick of a dungeon-master, I'm sayin'.
I drop my bag, close the door, and I hear this noise that sounds like a wounded animal. I walked into the frunchroom (front room, meaning living room in Chicagowski) and was astonished to find my father, sitting on the piano bench, collapsed into my mother's arms. His back was to me so he couldn't see me standing there, mouth agape, shaking from fear of my father's display of vulnerability. Good Lord, he was a mess. My mother just held him, patted and rubbed his back, and whispered in his ear that she understood and he was safe to cry, which made him howl louder and sound even more broken. As I took a step toward them, hoping to lend myself to my mother's effort to comfort him, without looking at me, she waved me away. It wasn't a cute, knowing, "Run along now, son" wave. It was "Boy, if you don't get your ass out of here," all-caps type of wave. I walked into my bedroom and closed the door, where I did nothing for what seemed forever. Sometime later, she comes in and tells me my father's grandmother died. She reminds me they were close and he was her only grandson and treated him like he was special and not some misfit. I hear some other inside information maybe a kid shouldn't know about his extended family, but Rosalita gave barely any fucks. She left the room to get back to him.
I was always walking into situations I had no business but I always stuck around anyway. Hell, that's how I learned most things I understood from far too early an age. My superpower was arguing, but at that moment, I didn't protest. I didn't insist upon my right to be there, as I would with movies and television that wasn't for my age group, or when I'd protest my banning from the kitchen when grown folks were drinking and talking. I didn't risk a smack at that moment as I had when, say, a field trip I needed permission for was denied to me because I would have been exposed to something not altogether appropriate for how my parents intended me to grow up. Quite frankly, I got the fuck out of there and left them to it without a thought about it beyond, "Oh, shit."
Even now, nearly four decades later, I don't know why I didn't try to stick around. When I was younger, I thought it may have been due to his hypermasculinity. All these giant men, this tiny woman with the fast hands and giant mouth, and me, wanting to read and draw and design spaceships and look at titties—lovingly photographed or hand-rendered by comic book masters, didn't matter—and I just didn't fit in to all that yelling and throwing things and punching things and tough guy/gal shit. Except I did, because I was no less the son of those two young, in-love idiots. I realized she needed me out of the room for one very simple reason.
If he knew I was standing there, he wouldn't cry, and dude really needed to let it out.
I still speak with God, but I've been through so much that it's usually better if I do so with Ashley listening in. It's less about fellowship and more that, around her, I won't lie. If the Good Lord is going to hear my prayer, She likely won't appreciate me saying, "I'm good" when I'm not. She should hear honest prayers from me if any. In the middle of my most recent prayer, I felt myself minimizing my hurt. I'm ready to say, to God, "I'm aight," or "I'm straight," or "I'm good," or whatever derivation of Chicagowski I use to shrug off something that hurt me deeply. Instead, I had no words. I just got choked up. I chewed air to try to stop it but it wouldn't, so I just let it come and got it over with. I was in the dark, so I can't say I ugly cried or anything, but even crying, I'm guessing I'm still handsome.
When I was done, of course, I apologized for my emotional episode. Ashley said, "It's alright, Daddy. You've been hurt," which is likely all I would have said to the old man, in my mother's arms, on that piano bench as she held him through his gauntlet of loss. I told Ashley how her mother did the same thing for me when I lost my brother. I then found some silly way to make her laugh before I hung up. I wasn't alright, but I was good, in that Chicago way, which is always good enough to survive until the next hurt. Had I persisted at that moment with my parents, I wouldn't have been able to give my father what Ashley gave me. That's why I had to leave the room.
It's also why I should've raised hell to stay.