White, Like You
Southern New Hampshire University MFA Prose Winner
My old man’s a white old man | And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man | I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother | And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish | And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house. | My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m going to die, | Being neither white nor black?
– Langston Hughes, Cross
Do you remember yelling at that high school kid? You called him a nigger and the word lingered in the air like a feather. I was nine and we were supposed to be practicing my jump shot on the children’s side of the gymnasium. You know: with the low hoops, the compressed court, the closer three-point perimeter? I shot from the free-throw line while you ignored my mechanics, watching Boy – another name you gave him – strut across the court. I kept yelling, Dad, Dad are you paying attention? I shot once, twice, having to retrieve my own rebounds. My frustration peaked after you abandoned me for Boy.
Your friends encircled him, and joining them were men who were unfamiliar to me, all united in preventing this kid from absconding. I wondered what he had done. Boy turned. He squared to you. He seemed to ignore the wolfing fathers. Your face flushed red, and your hands balled into fists. I waited. I observed. I stood confused. I grew bored. I tossed the basketball into the air, playing catch with myself, something that you had earlier barred me from doing, especially in the café area, stating, If you break something, you’re gonna pay.
I was more interested in the sizzling hot dogs and the rotation of my basketball than in the happenings around me until you and the kid stood only an inch apart, as if you might kiss. I didn’t realize it then, but Boy probably would have pummeled you had it not been for the flanking male throng.
Boy stood two inches taller than anyone else in the café. His muscles rippled and bulged each time he tensed. He tensed repeatedly. Your muscles were unrecognizable, insulated by girth. His slick eyes suggested fury and hate while your lazy eyes revealed nothing different than they had the day before or the days that would come to pass.
I had risen before dawn. I did what was expected of me: Brushed my teeth, combed my hair, fixed my bed. I placed my purple and gold Converse high tops by the door, along with my wristbands and headband. I was excited. Then I filled my bowl with Frosted Flakes and two heaping scoops of sugar, but I waited till I heard you rustling around in your bathroom before I started eating breakfast. I knew better than to eat too early.
I knew that you would later refuse to spend your money on me. You had always declined to buy me snacks or pop, declaring, You can eat when we get home, though you may have been devouring a Frito pie or a cheeseburger at the time. I asked once, Why do you get something and I don’t? You said, Do you have a job; no, then shut your mouth. Mother used to slip me money (you didn’t know that, did you?) but not till I was older. She would say, Mahal if you hungry, eat, but no tell your pawder.
That morning, I watched you shuffle into the kitchen, wearing nothing more than tighty-whiteys, and watched as you scratched various parts of your pale body. I disliked having to witness your parading around almost nude, but what could I have done? I patiently waited for your greeting, knowing that you never said hello, or even grunted in passing until your Folgers instant coffee had dissolved in the piping hot water and that you had taken your first sip. If anyone said anything to you between your waking and your sipping, you would be a grump all day.
You said, I don’t want to be there long.
Where do you think?
The basketball court?
Yeah, the basketball court. So when I say it’s time to go, we go.
I wondered what we were going to do later. When I asked, you replied, Who said we’re doing anything; ’sides, it ain’t none of your business what I do. There was no need for such a statement. I was nine. I was curious. Do you remember being nine? Do you remember that you had again promised to teach me how to make three-pointers?
Listen, you said, sipping your coffee, do you want me to take you or not?
Then stop questioning me.
Who chases someone down a second time? Boy remained silent even after you muttered, I dare you, nigger, to touch me. He smiled. You didn’t. I admired Boy’s simple response to your harsh tone. He turned round. He zigged through the pillar of fathers. He strutted away. He grabbed the handles of both gymnasium doors. He swung his arms wide, banging the doors against their stops. I watched as his dew-rag and parachute pants shimmered under the buzzing yellow lights. He didn’t turn round as you hurried after him, with both your words – Get back here Boy – and your width. You were energized by the mob of fathers or were you energized by the utterance of the word nigger?
That word lived in my mind for days. I wonder about it. I was distracted by it in school, paying more attention to my thoughts – What does it mean? – than to the lesson. At home, I yelled at the television, You can’t kill me nigger, as the giant video-game ape threw barrels down the platform. You can’t stop me Boy.
When I played with my action figures, I mimicked you, your actions. He-Man and Skeletor walked up to each other. They stood an inch apart. Blade, Clawful, Fisto and Jitsu orbited the ensuing battle. They shouted, Get him; kill him; get that nigger. That’s when Mother heard me. She bee-lined for me. Without
question, she smacked my mouth, busting my lower lip. She spoke in her broken-Filipino, Ju no neber say dat.
I didn’t do anything, I shouted, tasting the pooling blood.
Ju say bad word.
I just said nigger.
Mother slapped me a second time. I explained that Dad had said it. I shouted, I didn’t do nothing wrong. Mother didn’t seem to hear me. She shouted, Ju don’t say it; I Negritos; Ju half Negritos; Ju no say it again.
I don’t know what that means, I yelled.
Ju no say it. Ju no say it. Ju no say it.
Mother hollered at you that night, Ju no teach Mikelo bad words. You swore to her that you didn’t teach me anything. You said, He must have heard it from his friends. Mother glanced at me. I shook my head. I stood in disbelief. I said, He said it when he went to fight that nigger. Mother ran to me. She wailed upon my head. You intervened, stopping Mother’s fists, but you punished me, sending me to bed, as you bellowed, You’re grounded to you room for the rest of the month.
Do you remember what you said to me? The first day of my freshmen year of high school? You said, I don’t ever want to hear you’re dating a black girl. I froze, then turned toward you. You were reclining in your chair, not paying attention to me, flipping channels on the television, as if what you had said was See you later, or Don’t be late coming home.
I couldn’t comprehend the need for such a random statement. You didn’t want to hear? From who, I mused. We hadn’t talked all summer, hadn’t really talked in five years, and this is what you decided to announce. No talk of the birds and the bees. No, Good Luck; knock ’em dead champ. No, No need to be scared; I was once your age and everything’s going to be fine. Instead, Don’t date black girls!
I figured that your bitterness had carried over from the year prior when your scooter had been stolen; By that black boy, you had said. I didn’t know what else to equate your bitterness to. You loved that scooter. You looked silly on that scooter, too big for such a delicate machine. Glossy black, you often murmured as you wiped it clean.
The police found it in the woods, remember? They suggested that it had been taken by some local kids. Joy riders, they said. The same boys who were suspects in other petty crimes, someone added. I noticed your face, your eyes. I watched as you considered the word petty. I felt proud of you as you remained quiet.
I don’t know why the police invited you to the dump site. They asked you to identify the pieces as if it were a family member. You and I stood on that crag, you with your hands in your coat pockets, staring down at the bestrewn parts. You looked horrified, as if you needed comforting.
You declared, I’m gonna kill ’im. I wondered who. I had ideas. You wouldn’t have answered if I had asked. You kept turning your face away from me. Though you stood taller, straighter, when the cop said, Mr. Edwards, you let us do our jobs; don’t go bothering those boys.
This wouldn’t have happened if you had done your job.
The cop chuckled. You reddened.
People like you get away with this all the time, you said.
I shook my head, diverted my eyes. I couldn’t believe what you were saying.
That gang of boys – as you had called them – included the likes of Boy and Miguel and Chewie and other kids that you often warned me about, That’s a bad crowd; I don’t want to see you around them. Do you remember slowing the car to scrutinize that gang, as they assembled beneath that street lamp, laughing and joking, shouting things across the way? You used to say, Gotta know Morse code to talk to them boys; can’t understand a damn thing; somebody oughta run them bastards off.
I didn’t notice it then, but you used to remove your hand from Mother’s leg, no longer touching her as you paid attention to those boys. If she touched you, you would shrug her off or flick her away, sometimes barking, Get off me. I wondered what Mother had done. It was strange to see you snap at her. I guess that’s when it happened or that’s when I noticed.
You started coming home later each night, then isolating yourself in your office like Mother and her half-breeds were some sort of nuisance. You even banned us from your office, from your “clean room” – as Cindy and I deemed it.
Mother would ask, Where ju been?
It’s none of your business.
I jus ask. I jus worry.
I don’t like how you talk, you said. You need to learn English. From now on, you pointed at Mother, you’re only allowed to talk English in my house.
Cindy and I were shocked when you confiscated Mother’s matching wooden spoon and fork that had adorned her kitchen wall. All Filipino houses seemingly had spoons and forks on their walls in those days, and you were once fine with it. Mother asked, Where my spoon? You said nothing, ignoring her, not even obliging her with eye contact.
Then you trashed her tribal masks from Thailand and her Japanese Shoji screen. I remember going to school, returning home to find that more of Mother’s Oriental knick-knacks had disappeared. Cindy half-heartily joked, I told you he was sanitizing the house. Each morning I watched as you hung the American flag on that pole that you had deposited in our front yard, taking the flag down at sunset and before storms. That’s the proper way to handle Old Glory, you said.
Remember when you sent me to your hometown? I hated it there and I hated you for sending me away. What did I do to cause you to ship me off? Other parents would have succumbed to their kid’s pleas, All my friends are here; Why can’t I just finish my senior year? You didn’t give me a chance, saying, I don’t care what you think; this ain’t a democracy. When I asked why I had to go, you replied, Because I said so.
Living with your mother made me feel dirty. I would have showered four or five times a day if the bathroom hadn’t contained mold and if she hadn’t complained, You’re using too much water; You don’t pay the bills; Get out of there. Her house stank of cigarettes. My room didn’t have a door. Dinners consisted of processed meats and cauliflower. Dust, older than I, layered corners like sedimentary rock. She had no books, no games, no television, so most nights I was left staring at her gold tooth as she told me incoherent stories. I couldn’t even walk to town for reprieve, but you knew that, since her house was so far out of the way.
That summer I asked Grandma to take me places. Please, I would say. Perhaps show me the town, places my father played, his elementary school, somewhere, I added. She refused and she wouldn’t let me drive her car; instead she phoned some third-generation cousins who agreed only to pick me up on Sundays.
They took me to their church. They practiced Pentecostalism. Were you a Pentecostal? They wore jeans and camouflage shirts, ball caps. Those Pentecostals spoke in tongues, rambling in gibberish that they swore God understands. Every member knew someone who had died or who needed healing. Three of the four hours that I sat inside that barn-like building they called a church, I was mesmerized, scared, as people wailed, asking in plain English, Help me Lord; Save me Lord; Take these demons away, then switching to Tongue asking for – I don’t know what.
One Sunday, a visiting evangelical pastor stood on the rostrum, eyes shut, shouting, Somebody in here needs healing; come up here now and let me purge you of that devil. I would have fled from that show if I had had the means or if I had known my way home, but instead, I had to watch as people with asthma, people on walkers, people with emotional turmoil, lined up, waiting to be “touched” then shoved to the floor. Is that why you sent me to Indiana? Did I need healing?
Grandma took me to a Fourth of July festival, one of the few times she and I journeyed into town. She dropped me off near the entrance, gave me a few dollars then shouted, I be back round nine; you ’joy youself. The carnival had the usual fare: pink cotton candy, a Ferris wheel, roasted turkey legs. Bells sounded when games were won and elation shrieked from the winners. Children and adults alike cradled yellow or blue Care Bears, or tigers, a unicorn. The grounds were muddy, so I spent most of my time having to avoid puddles.
That evening, someone shouted, Nigger go home.
I looked round. I looked for Boy or someone who resembled him. I saw the same fat girl who had been stalking me earlier in the day. She was fiercely gnawing on some gum. I wanted to know why she was behind me, why she had crept so close. She was glaring at me. I was puzzled. She looked irritated.
You heard me, she shouted. Niggers aren’t welcome here.
Are you talking to me? I asked.
You the only nigger here, she replied. A crowd started to gather behind her, around me. People were smiling and laughing, and I could hear the twang of Bluegrass in the distance. She yelled, What the hell are you doin’ in my town boy? I didn’t know how to respond. I became angry, hurt.
You need to leave me alone, I said.
Nigger’s got a mouth on him, don’t he?
Some in the gathered mass nodded in agreement, some said, mm-hmm; hell yeah.
My father’s from here, I said.
Your daddy ain’t from here boy; no one from here is a nigger lover.
I felt claustrophobic as the number of persons in the crowd increased and as the crowd inched forward, compressing the air, forming a compact wall. I didn’t see it coming. I figured she just wanted to be the star, the queen, of the fair.
She said, Niggers ain’t wanted here.
Then she punched me. That was the first time that I had ever been struck by anyone other than you or Mother. I wanted to hit her, but I had been taught that striking a woman was wrong. I wanted to surrender to my fury. I thought, Who cares about propriety when this girl’s bigger and taller than me? My hands became fists. Members of the crowd tussled with one another. People hooted and hollered.
Come on nigger, she taunted, hands up like a boxer, you afraid of
I stepped toward her.
Don’t do it boy, a voice from the crowd said.
Come on nigger, let’s go.