Clifford Thompson is the author of What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues (2019), which was selected by TIME Magazine as one of the “Most Anticipated Books” of the season. Thompson received a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press, which also brought out his memoir, Twin of Blackness (2015). His work appears in publications including The Best American Essays 2018, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, The Times Literary Supplement, The Threepenny Review, Commonweal, Cineaste, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the author of a novel, Signifying Nothing. His graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, is forthcoming in 2022.
It took me a while, in this fog of middle age,
To remember her first name.
I knew her last because
I remember her brother, my classmate,
Saying “He was Martin Luther King. I’m Martin Luther Scott.”
What I never forgot
Is the evening Martin’s younger sister called me on the phone,
Asking that we talk again the evening following,
When I would answer her question, and
— she said this —
We would be “rough and tough.”
I suppose, in a way, I was rough and tough:
My answer was no,
For reasons I could not produce now at gunpoint.
Today I have a question for Robin
Which is how in the world, at age ten,
Did you already know
What I had to learn as a grown man?
Hold a sheet by the corners and flap it
In mid-motion resembles
The red Corvette Stingray, big curves near the headlights,
At the bottom of my boyhood street
That sleek car in our poor neighborhood — how?
I never knew who drove it
Didn’t know, then, about real stingrays —
Black, a foot long, stinger in the tail
Used only for self-defense in those dangerous waters
The Stingray driver surely black (everyone there was)
And those streets often dangerous
Did he act only in self-defense?
Is he still with us? Dead of natural causes?
Or stung early, red like his car, that sheet over his face?
The jazz pianist Bill Evans
“has no casual fans,” the writer asserted
In the New Yorker piece I read
On a Manhattan bus headed downtown
That spring of 2001.
So I checked him out, and
Sure enough, in Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie,” in his “Gloria’s Step,” are
A wistfulness, a sweetness and gentleness and beauty,
An innocence that was ours then
And seemed — I swear I felt it — to forebode.
I felt it in summer in Brooklyn
Hanging out in my two young daughters’ room
On the bed next to the window
With a view of Manhattan’s Twin Towers
Standing like gray-suited brothers
Tall in the pale blue
And in the fall, after those brothers were turned to floating dust
I sat on the edge of the same bed
Seeing blackness through the window
My girls on the edge of sleep
As I wondered, not at all casually,
How to protect those young lives,
Breathing softly in flannel nightgowns
As sweet and tender as Evans’ piano notes
How to exempt them from, at best, the world’s indifference
Keep them from becoming so much dust
Preserve that innocence that daily lashed my heart
And these were not abstract thoughts
But full of details
You would not believe.
I succeeded, no, was spared —
My girls are women, able
To work and laugh, to waltz and step —
And I failed, no, succumbed,
As every parent does
Who wonders, here in winter:
What happened to my little girls?
MY OTHER GRANDPARENTS
I was three, not more than four, when I realized
I had other grandparents too, not just
The deaf white-haired lady who lived with us. So
I asked and I asked and I asked to see them,
And I got no answer, until I did —
My father, my mother and I drove to their house, which
Had so much: a bar in the cool, wood-paneled basement, established that day
As the mark of adulthood (I am still not an adult).
The house had wry uncles, had head-shaking aunts, had everything
Except my other grandparents, whose whereabouts
I had to piece together on my own.
Then back to our little house, where
My deaf white-haired grandmother sat by the second-story window
The common answer to a prayer: silence, then
A look at what you already have.
MY BROTHER'S APARTMENT
More mysterious than the thing itself
Is why I remember it.
I was nine, my brother twenty-three,
My grandmother old beyond numbering.
He visited the house, and then someone decided
He should drive us two (why us two?) to his apartment.
When we arrived, as at a foreign land with no word for “host,”
My brother went into his room for a nap
Which lasted the whole visit.
My grandmother and I were on our own,
In a kind of quiet I haven’t heard since.
Even time was different here:
On my brother’s wall was a gag clock
Whose numbers and hands ran backward, and indeed
Those afternoon hours seemed to move some way other than forward.
I found my brother’s Kid Colt Western comic book,
Read it at the table,
Its shouts and gunfire without sound, deepening the quiet.
Then there was my grandmother,
Sitting on the edge of the sofa, hands atop her pocketbook,
With the untroubled look
Of one who expects nothing.
A WALK WITH HER
My grandmother, white hair, slender limbs,
Breasts down at her middle, barely hearing,
Stayed close to home.
So I was unsettled the day
She told me she wanted us to go for a walk.
I was nine, embarrassed, going up our street
With all those other kids around.
No one laughed, or would later,
But across the street
The girl in my class with almond-shaped eyes
Had them trained right on me
As she sat on the green green grass leaning on one arm.
What that look suggested! I didn’t have the words then.
My grandmother must have spoken as we walked,
In the rough voice she couldn’t hear.
I don’t have those words now.