She called in sick yesterday morning, a phlegmy cough and aching joints, it was. Today, she tried pulling herself together with makeup, she never even wore any so it made her look not only bad but foolish. She was nastily sick and strangely empty. It was so clear, no one was to talk to her had it not to do with the work at hand. Folks know when the life of the party ain’t got no life left. Folks knew and folks respected.
Her father had only been in prison for seven years she would always say. “Oh but he’s only been locked up for seven years though,” she would shove when people began to stretch their faces long as pity offering. What she really meant by that was that she’d known and loved her father as he had known and loved her and that she wasn’t without father, he was just away.
“When someone you love is in prison, you carry them with you all places you go” She started to explain to the new guy in her life, “I certainly don’t get to write him as often as I think of him but like, for example, I might see a color and it’ll be the color of the shirt he wore in my favorite photo of us together and I’ll say out loud to no one really, ‘Pop, where that shirt at?’ or a word I’ll hear and it’ll be the word he taught me the definition of when I was six and curious — or a song!,” she started to get excited, “‘Ya’ll gone make me lose my mind - UP IN HEA! UP IN HEA!’ he would get all silly with DMX. And see, those things, those memories, you hold underneath your skin always and your skin goes with you everywhere.”
“The new guys or classmates or old ladies who’d start conversations in the grocery line never really understand what this all means, they never really know how frickin hilarious my Pops’ DMX impersonation is,” She once confessed to a therapist.
There was the guilt that also used to haunt her. The feeling of unending responsibility to always write timely letters — the least she could do, her being on the outside and all. She once told her mother that writing some days was difficult because she hadn’t had any positivity in her bank and no one in prison is looking to open a letter full of darkness, a letter full of fear. She also felt another kind of guilt around having a loved one in prison even though she and most of the folks she chose to be around knew good and well about mass incarceration and its lies but before her own run-in with it, she had never put souls in place of those numbers, those statistics. “My Daddy’s locked up,” she used to start, “but he ain’t do it, it was a set up, you know how the feds do,” she would throw on its heels. But wa’n’t nobody asking for all that, she later learned. So she stopped saying that after year 4 because she had gotten used to being on this side of the system.
One Saturday on a visit she and her Daddy sat, eye to eye. And she saw it. The exact seams in his skin that were breaking, where he was being broken. She could see him patching himself together with what he had. “You ever see someone fight to keep their own soul?” She asked that useless therapist. “Huh?” She forced. The woman said nothing but pressed the corners of her lips and it was there and then when she knew that the fool of a therapist was kin to the man who had one hand on her Daddy’s soul.
It was at night when It came to pay her a visit, his soul. He entered through her ear and was of the essence of music. He touched her matted hair up against her pillow and her eyes pulled open. She let out a roar of a laugh because he really looked like an African man. Cornered structure under tough midnight skin that held gold metal adornments. By the time she sat up he was in her closet picking out her outfit, made of the same orange African patterned material as the one he wore. She put on the clothes and went through a little door at the back of the closet that led them to a floral wedding reception, they danced the Azonto, the Gwara Gwara, the Shaku, and of course, The Grand March. They exorcised charcoal fog from their insides, leaving glee in their every particle until the sweat melted their suits off and they fell through the floor and landed on the shore of a Madagascar beach. She hadn’t realized how handsome her father had been until she had seen what the sun had did to his skin, injecting it with some of its heaven. They both sat on the shore in silence letting every wave tell its story. They hadn’t realized they were inching further and further into the ocean. The water had reached her chin and his shoulders and they still hadn’t realized — so lost in the stories. They were under, under the water. And the faces of the fish were the same people that had been at the wedding, except they didn’t recognize them. She would swim over to them waving profusely trying to get them to see her but they stared blankly and continued on. He didn’t bother with that, nor did he bother stopping her. At the sea floor they found a tunnel that had a light somewhere toward the back. She followed it and he followed her. The tunnel opened to the surface of a planet, not Earth. Where there was a tent and campfire with hell’s intensity. Sitting around the pit, they spoke their first words.
“You taught me the meaning of the word bait. It was on the cover of a DVD at aunty’s house. I asked what it meant and you explained it to me in fishing terms. And then how people can use people as bait.”
“I was six and curious.”
They both laughed warmly.
He started, “Y’all gone make me lose my mind…”
She smiled and stretched her eyes. This was her favorite.
Animated, they both “UP IN HEA! UP IN HEA!”
He, “Y’all gone make me go all out!”
She, “UP IN HEA! UP IN HEA!”
And he, “Y’all gone make me act a FOOL!”
This struck her. She was no longer smiling. He grew more and more animated.
He pushed, “Y’ALL ALL GONE MAKE ME LOSE MY COOL”
She started to tear. And then to sob. She was crying. And wailing and screaming. Infantile.
And and he, he lost his cool. Singing and dancing around, having lost his scruples.
She woke up in the morning to a bed, wet — or rather, the wet woke her. She had cried and sweat enough to soak her pillow and sheets. She came down with a nasty cough because of it. The window had been forgotten open and let an eerie chill in.
She wanted nothing other than to go see her Daddy, to see if that soul she saw was still whole. She drove the four hours with damn near a pint of tea and ginger and ginseng and honey to hold her but she still coughed grossly all over the steering wheel. She spent the whole drive trying to retrieve pieces of the dream but could only hold on for a couple of seconds at a time. She was chasing the sensation that rippled her spine when she could find it, his soul.
Pulling up at the detention center happy and ugly. A grin and a nasal drip combo that could only belong to a toddler. She limped on over to the desk and threw her Daddy’s name through the little holes in the glass, “I’m here to see him!”
Some clicking and some clacking and some squinting at the screen, “Miss, you don’t have an appointment.”
Her tears and pleading and nasty words are useless to retell because Ma’am behind the glass kept repeating some mess about “procedure.” She was a sista, Ma’am behind the desk — but that didn’t matter here, this was still the system. She drove home slow and stuttering between state highway traffic for 6 hours.
So yes, she called in sick yesterday morning, a phlegmy cough and aching joints, it was.