The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I called my father at his bank in Tulsa. He wasn’t there, as usual, so I left a message with his secretary, as usual. “Tell him, Helouise, that he has a new grandson.” I had to repeat the message twice, as Helouise was well aware that I was an only child and quite unmarried. Then I hung up and waited.
Three minutes later, my father called. “What’s her name?” he said.
“His name. Grandson. Helouise is slipping.”
“The baby’s mother.”
“Jesse,” I said. “From across the hall.”
My father said, “I knew you should have gone into one of those university dormitories. That buildin’ is filled with — ”
“She was a friend,” I said.
“Obviously. I’m only glad your mother’s not alive to see — ”
“Dad, Davie’s not mine, but he is my responsibility now because Jesse’s dead. He doesn’t have anyone else, like I have you.”
“You mean he’s not your boy?”
“He’s six years old.”
There was a silence, a sigh of relief.
“He’s the kid that stays with me sometimes,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” my father said.
“But I am going to start procedures to adopt him.”
“You’re bein’ impulsive,” my father said. “You’ve always been impulsive.”
I said, “Dad — ”
“And romantic,” my father said. “Like your mother was.”
“Dad,” I said again.
“You realize that means if somethin’ happens to us, he gets everything.”
“So maybe you’d better meet him,” I said. “You may finally have the heir with a flair for finances that you’ve always wanted.”
My father sighed. “I plan to. And you’ve got plenty of flair, just not interest.”
“I’m glad you’re coming,” I said. “I actually prefer to ask for money in person.”
“I was waitin’ for that.”
“You know I’ll pay you back when I finish here and start teaching. It’s just too tight this way.”
“How’d the kid’s mom die?”
“Murdered,” I said.
“In your buildin’? I knew you should have gone into one of those — ”
“No, downtown. Near Times Square. Robbed. Murdered. Seems to happen a lot here.”
“Well I’m comin’ anyway,” my father said. “Your stepmother, too. Ever since she joined the Tulsa Historical Society — or as I call it, the Tulsa Hysterical Society — she’s been pesterin’ me to take a trip to New England to see ‘where it really began.’ I guess we’ll fly to Boston in the next few days and drive down. Helouise’ll send you an itinerary.”
“Haven’t seen you since God was a baby!” my stepmother, Dapphine, squealed, crouched down, then sprung on me.
“I thought you guys might wait until morning to start down,” I said, and kissed Dapphine’s cheek.
“I like drivin’ at night,” my father said, setting down suitcases.
“He likes drivin’ at night,” Dapphine said, and sighed. “Sightseein’, too.”
“And it’s really coming down out there,” I said.
“A frog floater,” my father said as he squeezed my shoulder. “But Dapphine couldn’t wait to see you and the kid.”
“Me?” my stepmother said. “He pulled me by Plymouth Rock so fast, I couldn’t read what was on it.”
“It was rainin’,” my father said.
I said, “It says ‘1620.’ ”
“Sure that’s not the class of ’20?” my stepmother said.
“I thought it said ‘John plus Priscilla,’ ” my father said.
“What about ‘England Sucks’?” I said, and we all laughed.
“Here,” Dapphine said, handing me a plant. “No New York apartment’s complete without a Peripatetic Palestinian.”
“A what?” I asked.
“Wanderin’ Jew,” she said. “They’re great. You can’t kill ’em.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t ever try to buy one of those on a Sunday,” my father said. “We finally found it in a grocery store. Mr. Fields had ’em in the back. Just a kid, but they call him ‘Mr. Fields’ over the speaker.”
“Sit,” I said, and we sat.
“Kid already asleep?” my father asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
My father said, “This place is hardly big enough for two people.”
“Tell me about your trip,” I said.
“I’ve been keepin’ a journal,” Dapphine said, pulling a small pink notebook out of her purse, “for the historical society.”
“The hysterical society,” my father said.
“I’ve entitled it ‘Tales of a Holiday Inn,’ ” she said, flipping through the pages. “Where should I begin?”
“The beginning,” I said.
“We flew first class to Boston,” Dapphine read. Then, looking up at me, she added: “I always fly first class. If I’m destined to die on a plane, it’s not gonna be in coach.”
“She says the same thing about her car,” my father said. “Drives that Caddy.”
“It’s safer,” Dapphine said. “I figure I could have a wreck and never even know.”
“So what’s new in Tulsa?” I said.
“Don’t you want to hear about the trip?” Dapphine asked.
“Later,” my father said.
“Nothin’s ever new in Tulsa,” Dapphine said, closing her notebook. “Lawrence-Welk city.”
“The city commissioner, H.J. Barnum, had the road out to his ranch paved,” my father said, chuckling. “They’re calling it the H.J. Barnum Turnpike.”
“I’m eventually going to get your daddy out of that town,” Dapphine said, “if I have to move us to a new nursin’ home.”
“And there’s a great story goin’ around about a football player at TU,” my father said. “The athletic department was payin’ some girl to do his homework, so she slipped it under his door with a note sayin’ it was all done, just turn it in.”
“So he did,” Dapphine said, “only he didn’t know he was supposed to take the note off!”
“We all have our talents,” I said.
“Yeah,” my father said, smiling. “I remember when I bought you those white cleats, thinkin’ that one day we’d want to bronze ’em.”
“We should,” I said. “How many pairs of shoes go ten years without being worn?”
“I think I have some,” Dapphine said.
“I believe it,” my father said.
“Styles change,” Dapphine said. “Sometimes overnight. Why, in twenty-five years they could change a hundred times.”
“Let’s not get into that,” my father said.
“Into what?” I said.
“Dapphine wants to remodel the house.”
“No,” Dapphine said, “I want to sell the house and move into another in Dallas or Houston or Kansas City. But your father has lived in that house for twenty-five years and won’t budge. And it is your home, Chockie,” she said. “So I’m content to just redo it.”
“It’s comfortable,” my father said.
“It’s fifties modern,” Dapphine said. “Be real.”
“Is it still white?” I asked.
“Your father’s favorite color.” Dapphine said. “Borin’ Tulsa’s favorite color.” She turned to my father. “Why don’t you paint it one of these bright, pretty colors like they do houses up here?”
“When we got back from Acapulco last year,” my father said, “she wanted to stucco the place. Besides, the Clevos’ next door is pink. One pretty color on the block is enough.”
“Oh, the Clevos are awful,” Dapphine said to me. “A disaster waitin’ to happen.”
“New oil money out of Guthrie,” my father said. “They don’t know better.”
Dapphine said, “At one time her hair was black, brown, and blonde. ‘Neapolitan,’ I called it. And then she had it permed into those little curls. Absolutely pubic.”
“She looked like a Negress,” my father said.
“But he tells great stories,” Dapphine said.
“A fella calls home one night,” my father said, beginning one of the stories, “to tell his wife he’ll be late for supper. His old Negra maid, who’s been his grandaddy’s then his daddy’s maid, answers the phone and says the wife is upstairs in bed. ‘She sick?’ the man says. ‘No suh,’ the maid says. ‘Then why is she in bed?’ the man says. ‘She with a man,’ the Negress says. ‘You been with my family for generations,’ the man says, ‘so get the gun out of the desk in the study and shoot ’em.’ ‘Yes suh,’ the maid says. And pretty soon the man hears two shots on the other end of the line, and the Negress says, ‘They’s dead.’ ‘You are so loyal, Clementine,’ the man says. ‘My name is Hosiah,’ the maid says. The man says, ‘This 768-1235?’ ”
Dapphine screamed. “That’s great!” she said. Then, with a hand over her mouth, “Oh, the boy.”
“What’s that smell?” my father said.
I headed for the kitchen. “Cake.”
“I’ll help,” Dapphine said, following me.
“Dapphine, you fix me a drink?” my father said, reaching for the phone. “I’m callin’ Tulsa.”
In the kitchen, as I measured out sugar and Dapphine poured Scotch, she said quietly, “So tell me. Tell me about the little boy.”
My stepmother was “Miss Texas 1958.” “Now,” she says, smiling, “I’m passable on good days.” I approved of her marrying my father because, after I left college, he needed someone and she was fun. Now I more than approve of her — I love her — not so much because she’s fun as because she says, smiling, things like, “Now I’m passable on good days.”
I know that she doesn’t care that she’s no longer beautiful. I know that the Tulsa Historical Society could fold tomorrow and she wouldn’t mind. I know that she and my father will never move from our old house and she knows it and doesn’t care, really, if she ever remodels the place. And I know that she loves my father and works hard to keep his life exciting, that she’s aware of all I know about her, and that she loves me. This is why, standing together in the kitchen, she whispered to me, “So tell me. Tell me about this little boy.”
“What do you want to know?” I said.
“Anything,” she said. “Everything.”
“He hasn’t shown one sign of emotion since his mother died.”
“Oh,” Dapphine said., “That’s not good.”
Dapphine said, “Blue. You mean he’s blue about his mama.”
“No,” I said, “I mean he’s Negroid.”
To this, Dapphine didn’t say anything. She simply picked up the Scotch she had poured, and downed it.
“I want to tell a story,” Dapphine said when the three of us were back in the living room, sitting with our Scotches. She had made my father’s a double. “It’s about what happened to me last year at my sister Wanda’s party.”
“That Wanda’s a character,” my father said. “Last summer some black guy reached in on her passenger side to steal her purse, and she rolled up his arm in the electric window and drove him around to the police station.”
Dapphine rolled her eyes. “You know Wanda tends toward exaggeration,” she said, reaching for her Scotch. “He was probably Mexican. Drink up.”
“But she is entertainin’,” my father said. “She tells this great story about playin’ tennis out at a friend’s ranch in the middle of this big oil strike. The scabs are comin’ up the road on one side of the court and the union men are in the woods on the other and there’s Wanda volleyin’ in between!”
I said, “Isn’t she the one always saying, ‘Now that is interestin’ ’?”
“You got her,” my father said. “Some Negra could stick a gun in her face and that’s exactly what she’d say.”
Dapphine moaned. “Let me tell this story,” she said.
“Okay,” my father and I both said.
“My sister and I decided fifteen years ago, when our parents died, that we’d each make a big to do over the other’s birthday — get together, cut up — and we always have.”
My father said, “Wanda flew up last year and gave Dapphine a box of candy hearts with vulgarities written all over ’em!”
“Seymore,” Dapphine said, and took a sip of Scotch, “please.”
“Okay,” my father said. “Okay.”
Dapphine smiled. “That was pretty funny. And she always sends Jackie O. a birthday card because we were born on the same day.”
“That Wanda’s a crack-up,” my father said.
“Anyway,” Dapphine said. “I threw this big party for her last year at their club in Houston.”
“I was in Tulsa workin’,” my father said.
“Yes,” Dapphine said. “And toward the end of the evenin’, the party started gettin’ real scummy. Everybody was drunk and there were naked people in the pool and throwin’ up on the golf course. I was cuttin’ myself a piece of cake, and this girl leaned over me and cut this big circle out of the middle of the cake and started to eat it but passed out — on me! She was passed out on my back, and I couldn’t move!”
“You never told me this,” my father said.
“Well, I’m telling you now,” Dapphine said, sipping a little Scotch. “That place was such a catastrophe, I decided to get out. I called for the car I was rentin’ and I left.”
“You were drunk,” my father said.
“A little,” Dapphine said, “but I could drive fine.”
“You must have been drunk,” my father said, “to just drive off like that from a party you was givin’.”
“I was missin’ you,” Dapphine said. “I was depressed.”
“You got lost, didn’t you?” my father said. “You don’t know Houston.”
“Yes, I got lost,” Dapphine said. “I ended up in colored town.”
“Was it night?” my father said.
“It was two in the mornin’,” Dapphine said.
“Good God,” my father said.
“So I stopped at a fillin’ station for directions,” she said. “I got out of the car and started inside, but then I saw half a dozen black men in there playin’ poker.”
“So I got back in the car and was gonna start it, when one of them walked up and tapped on my window.”
“You got the hell out of there, didn’t you?” my father said.
Dapphine said, “I didn’t know where to go. So I rolled the window down a little and he asked me if I needed gas and I said no. Then he said, ‘You’re lost, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I am. I’m lost.’ And he said, ‘Lock your doors and follow me.’ And he went and started up an old truck and led me out of colored town.”
“You shouldn’t have followed him,” my father said. “He could have led you out in the boonies and attacked you.”
“I was in the car,” Dapphine said.
“He could have shot you,” my father said.
“He wasn’t that kind,” Dapphine said. “I could tell he wasn’t that kind. And when we got out of colored town, he gave me directions back to the club. He told me never to come into that part of town alone at night again.”
“He was a nice man,” I said.
“Good people come in all colors,” Dapphine said.
“He was probably expectin’ you to pay him,” my father said.
“Good God,” Dapphine said.
“Drink up,” I said.
My father is a good man. He has his faults, but it seems to me that most of these developed extrinsically, more the result of those around him than of himself.
He was raised in Skitner, Oklahoma, and didn’t touch a black hand until he was eighteen. Skitner, Oklahoma, where until 1960 the sign beneath the Lions Club’s welcoming you into town read “Nigger Don’t Let The Sun Go Down.” Where there hasn’t been a winning football team for as long as I can remember; other teams, lesser black and Indian squads, for years have pulled themselves together to beat Skitner, vindictively, and for why we’ve always known. Skitner, Oklahoma: the county seat, where blacks from Kinta and Quentin come to shop on Saturdays and leave well before sundown because they remember. Where my grandmother lived and one bright fall morning drove her Lincoln through the yellow and red leaves to the state university in Stillwater to have my cousin moved from her black roommate and to give the dean of housing a prejudiced piece of her mind. Skitner, Oklahoma: ten churches and twenty-five hundred people — every one of them Caucasian, or near enough.
Growing up well-off in Skitner was different from most of the deep South where as a baby you might very well be cared for by a black. Where a “Negress” might sweep your mama’s carpets and her husband might mow your daddy’s lawn. Where you were sure as hell superior to them, but next to them. Not like in Skitner, Oklahoma, where my father grew up. Separate.
“I think I hear the kid,” my father said.
“You haven’t finished your drink,” Dapphine told him.
“I don’t hear him,” I said.
“I think I do,” my father said. “Where’s the toy?”
“My bag,” Dapphine said, pointing towards the suitcases.
My father walked over to a pink suitcase and pulled out an abacus, a red frame with different colored beads. Childishly bright, thoughtful with a message. “I used to have one of these,” he said.
“Don’t you want to talk to your father?” Dapphine said to me.
“Yes,” I said. “I want to talk to you, Dad.”
There was a thud in Davie’s bedroom.
“He’s up,” my father said.
“Dad, I should tell you that — ”
“Or else someone’s breakin’ into his room,” my father said, and moved quickly to the hall leading to Davie’s bedroom, the abacus in hand.
“Dad,” I said, rising from the couch.
“Seymore,” Dapphine said.
Suddenly he was back in the living room. “There’s a little black boy in that room,” my father said.
“Actually brown,” I said. “He’s more brown.”
“You didn’t tell me he was brown,” my father said, and looked at Dapphine. “He’s brown.”
“That’s nice,” Dapphine said, picking up her Scotch.
“You didn’t tell me he was brown!” my father said to me.
“I didn’t think it mattered,” I said. “And keep your voice down.”
“What?” my father asked sharply.
“Just suggesting,” I said.
“He’s just suggestin’, Seymore,” Dapphine said.
“You up and start adoptin’ a child while I’m still supportin’ you,” my father said, “and you have the nerve to tell me how to behave?”
“You weren’t upset until you saw him,” I said.
“He’s not upset,” Dapphine said hopefully. “No one’s upset.”
“What are you implyin’?” my father said.
“Dad, all I’m saying is — ”
“His mother from across the hall was brown, too,” my father said, this just dawning on him.
“She was a remarkable woman,” I said. “She — ”
“How’d she live?” my father said.
Dapphine said, “Seymore, that’s really not — ”
“How’d she make her money?” my father said to me.
I said, “She was sort of a companion.”
“A hooker!” my father screamed.
“Dad, let the dead be,” I said.
“Why, he’s a bastard child!” my father said.
“Dad,” I said. “Quiet.”
“I think I’ll retire to the ladies’ room,” Dapphine said to my father, “and throw up.”
My father took a deep breath, regaining some control. “I’m sorry,” he said, quieter.
“Not yet you aren’t,” Dapphine said, and pointed to the hallway, and Davie.
“Oh, he’s cute,” Dapphine said.
“Davie, it’s late,” I said. “Go back to bed.”
“What is a ‘basta child,’ Chockie?” Davie asked.
“And he’s smart,” Dapphine said, frowning at my father.
“Go on,” I said to Davie. “Shoo!” And he went.
“Has everyone here gone crazy?” my father asked, falling into a chair.
“When everybody around you is goin’ crazy,” Dapphine said, “take a look at yourself.”
My father and Dapphine looked at each other for a full ten seconds.
“You remember, Dad,” I said, sitting back down on the couch, “when you and I drove up from New Haven to Boston to see the Queen at the Old North Church? And all those women in their fancy outfits would walk up to her and curtsy and go inside?”
“I remember,” my father said.
“And there was this one little Italian lady, old and dressed in black and probably grandmother to about a zillion,” I said. “And she didn’t curtsy. And you could tell it wasn’t that she didn’t know she was supposed to, but that she was looking on the Queen as an equal — a mother, wife, woman. And the Queen shook that lady’s hand the longest, and smiled.”
“I remember,” my father said. “She had wonderful respect for herself, her life. Not pride — ”
“Like at my Yale graduation,” I said. “Remember that kid who had only one more newspaper to hand out? And because it was the last, no one would take it. So he threw it on the ground right in front of you and Dapphine and pranced off with his nose in the air.”
“I remember that,” Dapphine said.
My father said, “I worried about you goin’ to school with those proud types, people who think they are someone but have never worked for respect, self or otherwise. I worried you’d become like ’em.” He paused. “But you haven’t, have you?”
I shook my head.
“And if you’d not taken this boy, you’d have lost your self-respect.”
“Yes,” I said.
My father leaned toward me and looked into my eyes. “But we’re dealin’ with more here than just respect, Chockie,” he said. “This is a life. This — ”
“I love him,” I said. “Like you love me.”
My father took a deep breath. “Do you realize the work?” he said. “The responsibility?”
“I love him,” I said.
My father didn’t say anything.
“He’s been through a lot, Dad,” I said, “and hasn’t shed a tear. Mostly he sits, stares. Trying to work it out, I think.”
“Work it out?” my father said. “Look. I know about raisin’ kids: I raised you. And at six they don’t work anything out. You work it out for ’em. You — ”
Davie screamed, and before he could catch his second breath, we were all in his room. He was curled up on his bed, crying. For a moment, the three of us just stood there staring. Then my father threw the abacus he was still carrying down next to Davie, gently sat beside the sobbing boy, instinctively held him to his breast.
“I said, “What’s the matter, Davie? What’s wrong?” But Davie just cried. “His mother?” I asked my father. “Why’s he crying?”
“He’s six, Chockie,” my father said. “He doesn’t need a reason.”
“That man’s an old softie,” Dapphine said, her eyes welling up.
“I think it’s his mother,” I said. “I — ”
“You’ve got to remember he’s only six,” my father said, looking out the window at the stars pinned to the sky, Davie in his arms.
“I’ll remember,” I said. “I will.”
“A regular softie,” Dapphine said, sniffling loudly.
“Please,” I said. “I’ll remember.”
“He’s only six,” my father said, now rocking, causing the beads of the abacus lying next to him to spin, different colors merging into — “But no,” he then said, looking down at Davie. Then up at me:
“I’m sorry, Chockie. But no.”